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Eminent domain bridges the great political divide (Updated)

We might have finally found something Mississippians of every political persuasion can agree on: The use of eminent domain for private economic development is a bad, bad idea.

Just before 11 Tuesday night, Initiative 31, which will amend the state Constitution to essentially restrict the use of eminent domain to projects of direct public use, had earned more than 498,000 votes. The initiative needed 50 percent plus one, with the affirmative votes equaling at least 40 percent of total votes cast in all races, to pass. With 83 percent of precincts reporting, 73 percent of the votes cast were in favor of 31.

The 498,000 votes were more than all but one of the winners of the statewide races got. Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves, who had what could charitably be called token opposition, had gotten about 509,000 votes by 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Eminent domain’s initiative colleagues didn’t come close to that. Personhood, some of whose supporters and opponents need to take a long look in the mirror after the shenanigans of the past few weeks, failed altogether. Voter ID passed, but got 80,000 fewer votes.

Personhood’s defeat would qualify as a minor upset. There was never very much doubt that Voter ID would pass. Likewise with Eminent Domain, but I can’t imagine anyone who supported it dared to dream that it would outpoll Gov.-elect Phil Bryant by 60,000 votes with more than 80 percent of precincts reporting.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and its 200,000 “member families” made eminent domain their single biggest issue the past 18 months. (Disclosure: I am a Farm Bureau member). The latest issue of “Farm Country,” the organization’s magazine, was almost nothing but testimonials from members on the virtues of private property rights.

But this is not over, not by a long shot. The new eminent domain law will be challenged on the grounds that amending the state Constitution via ballot initiative is illegal. More than one legal scholar has told me that it could not withstand serious judicial scrutiny. The Mississippi Supreme Court basically punted the issue when Mississippi Development Authority interim executive director Leland speed challenged it earlier this year. Expect another one early next year.

Property rights, especially in our rural state, go beyond the normal wonkish back-and-forth. One’s land is one’s kingdom, so there’s plenty of raw emotion involved whenever the specter of land forcibly swapping private ownership arises.

On the other side of that is the economic development lobby that insists mega-projects like Toyota and Nissan cannot happen without the ability for the state to employ eminent domain.

Nothing is settled, but those who supported 31 deserve to revel in their victory for now.

Wednesday morning update: Initiative 31 is still outpolling every statewide official but Reeves at 9:30. With only 61 out of 1,876 precincts still out, “yes” votes for 31 have reached over 588,000. Reeves has pulled in about 593,000 votes.

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