Texas eminent domain bill benefits utility companies, the oil and gas industry and other special interests, including private toll road investors
Fast-track legislation's backers say it curbs eminent-domain abuses
By JOE HOLLEY, AUSTIN BUREAU
AUSTIN — Critics hope to slow down a fast-tracked bill that supporters say will strengthen the rights of property owners facing eminent domain proceedings that sailed through the Senate this week by a 31-0 vote.
Opponents insist the bill, designated as emergency legislation by Gov. Rick Perry, benefits utility companies, the oil and gas industry and other special interests, including private toll road investors still eager to build a Trans-Texas Corridor.
"After four previous attempts to protect Texas landowners from eminent domain for private gain, lawmakers either can't get it right or won't get it right," said Terri Hall, founder of a grass-roots group called Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, or TURF. "Texans deserve to be told the truth and to be given true protection from eminent domain for private gain, not have their lawmakers tell them they have it when they don't."
Hall and other critics hope to slow down the fast-track legislation in the House, where it also will receive scrutiny from a Houston state representative who hopes to resolve a long-running eminent-domain dispute between the Texas Medical Center and surrounding neighborhoods.
Property rights at issue
It was Perry's support of a Trans-Texas Corridor project, with its reliance on eminent domain to acquire right-of-way, that riled rural property owners and the Texas Farm Bureau, and provided ammunition to the governor's erstwhile political opponents, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White. Both accused Perry of ignoring private property rights by pushing what would have been a multibillion-dollar network of toll roads and highways affecting some half-million acres of farmland. The 450,000-member Texas Farm Bureau endorsed Hutchison over Perry in the GOP primary last year, but now supports the governor for his commitment to the Senate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and its companion piece in the House by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.
Perry, who vetoed similar legislation in 2007, praised the Estes bill.
"I commend the Texas Senate for passing SB 18 as we continue the effort to strengthen private property rights in our state," the governor said. "Property ownership remains an essential freedom for Texans, and we must strengthen our eminent domain laws to further protect property owners."
Melissa Cubria, a research and policy analyst for the Texas Public Interest Research Group, would agree with the latter statement, if not the former. "Language in the bill enables government and private entities to commingle," she said in an e-mail. "Governmental entities can create private corporations and act on their behalf, thus blurring the line between public and private - a consequence of private toll road deals such as the ones used to finance the Trans-Texas Corridor and other private toll roads that have since emerged. The lack of distinction between private and public entities unravels most of the landowner protections built into the bill."
"Senate Bill 18 does not enable or provide for government and private entities to commingle," he wrote in an e-mail. "Senate Bill 18 makes several key revisions to current law, including requiring that condemning authorities make a good faith offer before condemning procedures begin, prohibiting the taking of private property unless it is for a public use, improving notice and disclosure by condemning entities, applying condemnation rules to all condemning entities, and providing property owners with the opportunity to buy back property at the original purchase price if the taken property is not used for its public purpose in 10 years."
Under eminent domain, government entities and certain legally authorized private entities, such as pipeline companies and utilities, are allowed to acquire property for public use after fairly compensating the owners. If the property owner and entity cannot agree on a price, the entity can file suit to condemn and acquire the property at what is supposed to be fair market value.
The bill now goes to the House, where state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, will try to attach language to eliminate the Texas Medical Center's eminent domain powers.
"Anyone who is in the ring around Medical Center Inc. is concerned that the medical center will use the power of eminent domain to take their houses if they want to expand," Coleman said.
A similar effort failed in 2009.
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