|By ANN HINCH
LANSING, Mich. — Less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 23 Kelo v. New London opinion, Michigan legislators introduced House Bill 5060 to amend a state statute dealing with acquisition of property by state agencies and public corporations.
The thrust of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Glenn Steil (R-Dist. 72) and 22 other state representatives, is simply that under any eminent domain proceeding, government cannot take privately owned property to transfer to another private owner.
“Most people understand if it’s going to go to the government,” he explained. “That’s one thing; but to go to another private entity is another thing.
“Government was set up to have a balance of power, not to have more power than the people.”
At fewer than 200 words, Steil said some of the appeal of his proposal is that it’s so simple. He is confident the legislature, which is in recess until after Labor Day, will pass it as a bipartisan effort. (A nearly identical bill, House Bill 5078, was introduced earlier this month by Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi (D-Dist. 37).)
Another advantage of his bill, Steil said, is it should take less time to pass than an amendment to the state constitution. That’s what Sen. Tony Stamas (R-Dist. 36) is trying to effect with Senate Joint Resolution E (SJR E), said Chad Wing, Stamas’ chief of staff.
“It’s pretty easy to change the law,” Wing admitted. “It’s harder to change the constitution.”
Nevertheless, Stamas likely doesn’t see any problem with this particular suggested change meeting public approval. Like HB 5060, SJR E is short enough to get to the point without mincing words: It states that “public use” does not include taking private property for private economic development unless final use of that property remains subject to public oversight after the transfer.
It also indicates eminent domain power does not exist for “the enhancement of tax revenue” through private-to-private condemnation.
“It kind of hit me at the gut level,” Stamas explained of the Kelo decision. Property rights, he said, are one of the basic tenets of this nation, and he believes this resolution works “hand in hand” with Steil’s proposed statutory change.
Private industry, Stamas pointed out, has the ability to negotiate directly with property owners for their land. His aim is to make it so they cannot take a shortcut through government to acquire it. A July 2004 Michigan Supreme Court opinion in nine cases collectively captioned County of Wayne v. Hathcock agrees.
“Michigan does currently have some of the strongest property rights laws in the nation,” Wing explained.
In Hathcock, the Court reversed a lower-court judgment which granted Wayne County government the right to condemn several tracts of property for a 1,300-acre business park, stating the proposed usage of eminent domain was not within the scope of the state constitution’s definition of “public use.”
If Stamas’ resolution passes a two-thirds vote each in the Senate and House, it will be put to a statewide referendum next year. Wing said senate majority leadership has indicated this should be one of the legislature’s highest-priority policy issues in the autumn session.
Published in the August 24, 2005 issue of Farm World.