Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Texas Legislature balks at limiting eminent domain by the state. Instead, the focus is on city and county governments.

Editorial: Reassess corridor

July 12,2005
The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2005

Gov. Rick Perry's Friday announcement that he is adding consideration of eminent domain to the agenda of the 79th Texas Legislature's special session is interesting for what he left out.

"The Supreme Court's ruling would allow government to condemn your family's home, bulldoze it and build a new shopping mall or some other kind of economic development project simply to generate more tax revenue," Perry said.

"I stand with an overwhelming majority of lawmakers and citizens who believe that this starts us down a slippery slope that will lead to the erosion of Texans rights," the governor continued.

Perry was referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's recent 5-4 decision in Kelo vs. City of New London, which upheld the right of that Connecticut city to boost the local tax base by using eminent domain to aid private developers.

The governor, however, conveniently ignored the fact that he is aggressively pushing one of the largest uses of eminent domain to aid private developers in Texas history.

The constitutional amendments the Legislature is considering to limit the power of Texas cities and counties to do what New London did will not prevent the state from condemning as much as 580,000 acres of privately owned land to benefit Cintra-Zachry and later perhaps other developers, as well.

At this point, we have to acknowledge that the Texas Department of Transportation's Mike Cox caught an error in one of our earlier editorials on the Kelo decision.

The July 6 editorial, "Texas will limit eminent domain," said of the Trans-Texas Corridor that "its private developers cannot fund and build it without using eminent domain on a scale that greatly - and legitimately - worries many Texans."

Cox, also a distinguished Texas historian and member of the Texas Institute of Letters, correctly calls that statement "a major error of fact."

In his letter to the editor, printed on the right side of this page, the TxDOT communications manager explains why that statement in our editorial is technically wrong. In so doing, however, Cox completely misses the point.

We should have said, and now do, that the Trans-Texas Corridor's developers cannot build it without relying on the state of Texas to use eminent domain on a scale that greatly - and legitimately - worries many Texans. And in the process, this large-scale condemnation of privately owned property will directly benefit the private developer with whom the state has contracted to begin construction of the gargantuan new ground-transportation network.

Several members of the Texas Legislature have filed proposed constitutional amendments to prevent city and county governments from using eminent domain to benefit private developers "if a primary purpose of the taking is for economic development," as House Joint Resolution 19, sponsored by state Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, and Senate Joint Resolution 10, sponsored by Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, put it.

In a Friday e-mail to the editor of this page, the office of another amendment backer, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, explained that "the purpose of SJR 10 is to prohibit a political subdivision from taking private property for the primary purpose of private economic development. The primary purpose of the Trans-Texas Corridor is not private economic development, but, rather, development and infrastructure for public use."

We find it telling that the proposed amendments intended to prevent the abuse of eminent domain in the Lone Star State would not prohibit the state of Texas from doing what lawmakers want to prohibit local governmental entities from doing. As if we have more reason to trust our officials at the state Capitol more than we can trust our local elected officials who are our neighbors.

And www.corridorwatch.org the Web site of the corridor's well-organized opposition, disputes Wentworth's claim about the project's primary purpose: "It's designed to generate revenue first and provide transportation second. The corridor plan is designed to provide transportation funds, more than transportation. Rather than identify specific transportation needs and offer solutions, the plan defines funding as the need and the corridor as the solution. Accordingly it's not important where the corridor is built, as long as it generates revenue."

The corridor's proposed massive size, its routing away from the urban areas where the majority of Texans live and TxDOT's refusal to release secret details of its contract with Cintra-Zachry even when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ordered it to do so give the Corridor Watch group's claim considerable credibility.

We are also perplexed by Wentworth's missing the point about the corridor's benefits to a private developer. The e-mail from his office stated, "Any peripheral business allowed to locate on state land taken by eminent domain is just that - peripheral." The e-mail lists "gas stations, convenience stores, and restaurants that may do business in the corridor" to show what the senator means by "peripheral" businesses.

But the e-mail from Wentworth's office completely ignored Cintra-Zachry, which will benefit not peripherally but integrally and intentionally from the state's massive use of eminent domain to take more than a half-million acres of Texas land away from its private owners.

Corridor Watch suggests, "Lets amend our Texas Constitution to add this language, 'Private property shall not be taken through the use of the power of eminent domain if a primary purpose of the taking is for economic development.'" Add to that "and if it would primarily or integrally benefit private developers."

Apply the same rule to the state that many lawmakers want to impose on city and county governments, whose potential abuse of eminent domain is minuscule compared with the state's planned abuse of it for the Trans-Texas Corridor. Considering this additional language also would bring about a long-overdue full legislative reassessment of the massive, ill-advised project.

The Victoria Advocate: www.thevictoriaadvocate.com