Saturday, July 02, 2005

"Those who naively trust local governments to make wise decisions clearly haven't been paying attention."

COMMENTARY: 'Public good' is in eye of beholder when cash flows

Molly Ivins

The Desert Dispatch
Copyright 2005

As one who cares a whale of a lot more about personal rights than property rights, let me leap right into the fray over a Supreme Court decision on the side of the property rights advocates, many of whom I normally consider nutballs. But at least they're more in touch with reality than a majority of the Supreme Court.

The justice who nailed this one was Sandra Day O'Connor, bless her. She wrote in dissent: "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

The court ruled 5-4 that local governments may use the power of eminent domain to confiscate private homes and turn them over to private developers, who will make more profitable use of them, tax-wise. The case came out of New London, Conn., a city that has lost tens of thousands of jobs and has an unemployment rate twice that of the rest of the state.

In the late 1990s, the Pfizer drug company decided to build a $300 million research campus next-door to 32 acres the city had acquired after the Navy closed a facility there. The state pledged $7 million to open the waterfront to the public, fill in the flood plain and clean up the area, which has environmental hazards. The city also came up with a redevelopment plan that includes marinas, parks, private offices, condos and a hotel. But seven of the 90 landowners in the area refused to sell.

The court essentially extended the use of eminent domain -- the right by which the government can seize private property to use for public purposes in exchange for fair market value -- to include for-profit development.

Well, sure, that sounds just dandy -- parks, marina, riverfront walk -- all a lot nicer than some blighted area. "Public purposes" usually means roads, schools, and bridges. But the five justices in the majority on this decision clearly know little to nothing about local government.

The majority noted that "economic development" has long been considered a public good. "Jobs, jobs, jobs," is the eternal cry of the economic development lobby, which always stands to profit from whatever abomination is about to be foisted on the public. I'm not arguing that bigger is better or worse, I'm arguing that local governments are likely to seize on any chance to increase their tax base. We've got places in Texas that beg for prisons, chemical complexes, even nuclear waste dumps.

What it doesn't mean is a better place to live, which I gather is what the Supreme Court majority had in mind with this decision. Those who naively trust local governments to make wise decisions clearly haven't been paying attention. The main difference between the feds and the locals is that it costs more to buy the feds. And I don't like cynics.

Many, many "economic development" decisions are made after an all-expenses-paid jaunt for local officials to the home location of a corporation, or after a pleasant discussion over lunch after a round of golf at a country club. Too cynical for you?

Look, a Wal-Mart brings in more tax dollars than 10 mom-and-pop stores. A chemical plants brings in more than the local shrimpers, especially after it kills off all the shrimp.

People have the most remarkable ability to convince themselves that what they are doing is for the greater good if they are also making a great deal of money out of it. Or, as Upton Sinclair put it, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."


Is a nationally syndicated political columnist who remains cheerful despite Texas politics. She emphasizes the more hilarious aspects of both state and national government, and consequently never has to write fiction.

© 2005 Desert Dispatch