Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Corte: "If it's watered down, it's not worth passing."

Eminent domain bill appears dead for now

House refuses to negotiate, but it could be taken up again if there's another session

July 19, 2005

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN - Legislation to protect private property owners from certain land seizures appeared dead Tuesday when the House refused to negotiate a final version of the bill with the Senate.

Although Senate Bill 62 may be doomed for this special session, which ends at midnight, lawmakers are likely to revive the issue if another special session is called.

The bill was drafted in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing local governments to seize a home or other private property for private economic development. The court, however, said states were free to further limit eminent domain powers if they chose.

Prompted by a flood of phone calls to lawmakers from worried property owners, Gov. Rick Perry added the issue to the special session agenda.

The Senate passed the bill first and sent it to the House, which added numerous changes to the bill before sending it back to the Senate.

Because the House and Senate passed different versions, each chamber needed to appoint members to a conference committee to work out a compromise agreement.

The Senate had agreed to negotiate with the House.

But Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, persuaded 91 representatives not to negotiate with the Senate, which he said would result in weakening the bill. Forty voted to negotiate.

"We need to do something for the property owners of Texas, and this is the only thing we have right now," Corte said. "If it's watered down, it's not worth passing."

Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, who authored the bill in the upper chamber, said he will not accept the House's version.

A major sticking point, he said, is a provision that would require governments to pay replacement value — rather than fair market value — when property is seized.

"That's just a litigation nightmare," said Janek. "I didn't like that. We have to be very careful about the wording of that bill."

Corte told House members that the Senate also had planned to remove an amendment put on by Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, preventing a government entity from claiming a public seizure is for safety or health when it's really about economic development.

"This is a matter of principle," said Corte. "They're gutting the bill. They're erring on the side of government."

Corte had sponsored a resolution seeking a constitutional amendment limiting eminent domain, which he said would have provided stronger protection for Texas property owners. The Senate, however, refused to take it up.

Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, who sponsored the eminent domain bill in the House, denied Corte's allegations that a plan was already hatched to weaken the bill.

"There is no done deal. There is no bill printed. We need a bill out so we can calm the fears of our constituents. We need a balanced decision, not a knee-jerk reaction."

Janek said he didn't expect the bill to unravel in the waning hours of the special session.

"I'm surprised and disappointed," he said. "We needed this bill. I wish the House had not done this."

Houston Chronicle: