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Senator takes on property ruling

McPherson's draft would limit seizures

Capitol news bureau

The vice chairman of the state Senate's Finance Committee has drafted a constitutional amendment that would forbid taking a person's property to benefit private business development.

Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, is meeting today with Gov. Kathleen Blanco to seek her support for a proposed amendment that he predicts will be opposed by most politicians and businessmen but backed by most property owners.

McPherson and other lawmakers are focusing on property protections because of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision last month, coupled with a virtual explosion in Louisiana of the number of public-private agencies with the ability to take away a person's private property.

"You shouldn't extend expropriation authority for the purpose of economic development," McPherson said Wednesday.

Blanco is "generally sympathetic" to the position, said McPherson, who served as the governor's floor leader on several issues during the legislative session that ended June 23. He wants the constitutional ban to be considered during the special session expected to be called for January.

The proposed moratorium needs to be approved by two-thirds of the members of both houses of the Legislature, plus a majority of voters.

Blanco, who determines the agenda of a specially called legislative session, did not return calls seeking comment. Her spokesman, Roderick Hawkins, said the proposal would "require some study."

McPherson appears to have some support among Democrat Blanco's usual opponents. A leading Republican senator says he is hard at work on pretty much the same legislation.

"That Supreme Court decision scared an awful lot of us," said Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge.

Government long had the authority to force an individual to sell his private property "for the greater public good." It's called eminent domain. That power traditionally applied to taking property for public projects, such as roads and drainage.

McPherson said he does not want to tamper with that expropriation ability of government. But he does not want to expand that public purpose definition to include taking property for a private enterprise's business.

McPherson said he noticed that a number of these quasi-agencies -- economic development districts and reservoir authorities that can expropriate private property -- were created during the past legislative session.

This year the Legislature approved eight organizations that have the right to take private property. At least 16 other districts -- basically partnerships between government agencies and private businesses -- were formed by earlier legislatures.

The concept allows city and parish governments to band together with colleges and companies to quickly pursue local business projects too small for state involvement.

For instance, deals being cut by local governments in Livingston and Ascension parishes using tax dollars to entice retailers to open sporting-goods stores are the type of projects these districts could develop.

But eminent domain is a complex area of the law. So just how many Louisiana districts can take private property is somewhat of a mystery, said Richard House, executive counsel of the state Department of Economic Development.

House said that, after researching the issue, he found about dozen or so. Those include agencies in Catahoula, Jefferson, Concordia and St. Tammany parishes, he said.

But none of the districts have expropriated private property, or at least he couldn't find anyone who has complained, House said.

"Is eminent domain a necessary tool for economic development in Louisiana? I don't know because we've never really done it here," House said.

"The department's position is that this is a local matter and that the people of the localities need to determine whether that power is necessary," he said.

On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to give New London, Conn., the authority to take the homes of Susette Kelo and 14 others for private hotel resort development that would create about 1,000 jobs.

In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote "there is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose."

The Institute for Justice, which represented the Connecticut homeowners, said at least 25 states are considering changes to eminent domain laws on the heels of the high court's decision. Legislators in Texas and California have proposed constitutional amendments similar to McPherson's.

The group says Alabama, South Dakota and Virginia lawmakers have requested information for drafting legislation.

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