"Texans' love of personal freedom and private property is so deep it's genetic."
The legislation clears U.S. House with bipartisan Texas support
By SAMANTHA LEVINE
Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - With bipartisan support from Texas lawmakers, the U.S. House overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday to blunt the recent Supreme Court decision allowing local governments to take private property for economic development projects.
The legislation would withhold federal economic development money for two years from any local government that uses its eminent domain power to seize property in such a case.
"It would give communities a good knock on the head and make them take note," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio.
The bill passed 376 to 38, with 31 Texans voting yes. The remaining lawmaker from Texas, Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, favored the bill but was absent.
In the Senate, Texas Republican John Cornyn has authored a bill to prohibit the use of eminent domain to further private economic development, but the chamber will likely be too busy to bring it up for a vote this year, he said.
The desire to protect private property is deeply etched into the state's culture, several Texas lawmakers said.
"Texas was settled by people who were willing to fence in their property and protect it," said Rep. Al Green, D-Houston. "We take seriously the notion that a person's home is his castle, and to protect that castle from the king and his men."
Houston Republican John Culberson said Texas has a long history of protecting property rights.
"Texas was one of the only states in the union where people were not thrown out of their homes (for defaulting on payments) during the Great Depression," he said. "Texans' love of personal freedom and private property is so deep it's genetic."
Culberson also said the House bill's approach is consistent with those values because it offers state and local governments a choice, rather than telling them what to do.
The House approved several amendments, including one from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, that expresses the sense of Congress that property owned by survivors of Hurricane Katrina should be protected from seizure by the government for economic development or private use.
The court case
The issue of eminent domain, or the ability of government entities to claim private property for their use, arose this summer after the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. It held that local governments can seize private property to make way for private development projects that can create new jobs and generate tax revenue.
In the Kelo case, the Connecticut city wanted to buy properties in a blue-collar neighborhood to construct a research facility, resort hotel, higher-priced homes and retail space.
Fifteen property owners did not want to sell. The city condemned the lots anyway.
Lawmakers immediately pounced on the ruling as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which states that private property cannot be taken for a public use without just compensation.
The June decision broadened the definition of "public use" beyond building roads or other projects.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law this summer a bill that bars government agencies in the state from condemning private property for economic development projects, except roads, parks, libraries, auditoriums, ports and utilities.
Alabama and Delaware also passed laws limiting the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling, and nine other states are considering legislation.