The eminent domain battle that raged in the Capitol the past few weeks is far from dead.
After originally clearing both chambers of the Legislature with only four dissenting votes, a bill that would have eliminated the use of eminent domain for major economic development projects met a veto from Gov. Haley Barbour.
After the House overwhelmingly overrode Barbour’s veto, the Senate, with its gallery full of bill opponents and proponents, sustained it with four votes to spare.
In an effort to revive the issue, Farm Bureau, which strongly supported the failed legislation, will begin gathering signatures that could place the issue on the ballot.
Farm Bureau president David Waide said last week he is in the process of crafting language to present to his board for its approval. Waide’s next board meeting is in the middle part of May.
If the board gives him the green light, Waide can start the paperwork process of a ballot initiative.
“I don’t have any reason to believe they won’t,” Waide said.
To get the highly emotional issue on the ballot, 91,673 registered voters will have to sign a petition in favor of it. Of that total, an equal number of signatures must come from registered voters in each of Mississippi’s four congressional districts.
“Based on my phone calls, we’ll get them within two or three weeks,” Waide said. “If we have member in our organization that won’t sign it, I don’t know that member. At least, they haven’t called me. I have never seen an issue that was so overwhelmingly supported by the public that failed in the legislative process.”
That optimism, Waide said, is fueled by the sheer size of Farm Bureau’s membership – which numbers in excess of 200,000 – and the pride of private property ownership.
“There are really three issues that people get passionate over,” he said. “The first and foremost is freedom of religion. The second is the right to own property. Those two go way back before the founding of this country. The third issue is the right to bear arms. When you start dealing with the founding principles of this country, it really takes people to task.”
If the initiative is successful, the most likely election that would have eminent domain on the ballot is the statewide elections in 2011. There is a possibility that it could be on the ballot in 2010, when voters will select congressmen, but the statute governing ballot initiatives requires every ballot in the state have a common candidate or a candidate for statewide office. Initiating a court battle over a year’s separation in elections is unlikely, Waide said. “We’re not trying to pick a fight here.”
Two powerful organizations that supported the eminent domain legislation Barbour vetoed appear ready to participate in the ballot initiative.
Sammy Blossom, executive vice president of the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, said he and his 3,100 members would most likely contribute signatures.
“If they get that started, I would think that we would participate,” Blossom said.
Blossom echoed Waide’s assertion that the right to own land is a principle that deserves preservation.
“It’s a basic right that’s guaranteed by the Constitution,” he said. “Just because somebody thinks they have a better idea than I do about my land and use that as an excuse to take it is just not right. (A ballot initiative) has always been an option.”
The Mississippi Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), which advocates for small businesses in the state, is awaiting the call to action, too, as long as the initiative includes language that forbids government from forcibly transferring ownership of land from one private entity to another.
“It’s very likely that we would get involved (as long as that is a part of the deal),” said NFIB/Mississippi state director Ron Aldridge. “As far as the concept, we definitely favor that.”
The Mississippi Loggers Association was scheduled to discuss possible participation at a membership meeting Saturday. That organization has approximately 425 members.
“We haven’t reached a conclusion just yet,” Loggers Association executive director Cecil Johnson said Wednesday.
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org .