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Eminent domain initiative roars to passage, but nothing is settled

November 13th, 2011 No comments

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 idea.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting late last Wednesday afternoon, 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 595,000 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 96 percent of precincts reporting, 73 percent of the votes cast were in favor of 31.

The 595,000 votes were more than all but one of the winners of the statewide races got. Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves had gotten about 598,000 votes by 3 p.m. last Wednesday.

Eminent domain’s initiative colleagues didn’t come close to that. Personhood failed altogether. Voter ID passed, but got 94,000 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 it’s hard to imagine anyone who supported it would have thought that it would outpoll Gov.-elect Phil Bryant by 90,000 votes with 96 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. The latest issue of Farm Country, the organization’s magazine, was almost nothing but testimonials from members on the virtues of private property rights.

Nothing is settled, though. The new eminent domain law will almost assuredly be challenged on the grounds that amending the state Constitution – specifically, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights — via ballot initiative is illegal. The Mississippi Supreme Court deferred the issue when Mississippi Development Authority interim executive director Leland Speed challenged it earlier this year, arguing that it would kill any chance the state had of attracting projects like the Toyota and Nissan manufacturing facilities.

Speed had not returned a message left with a MDA spokesperson by the time the Mississippi Business Journal went to press last week. In an interview with the MBJ earlier this year, he said he would most likely challenge the initiative if it passed.

Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation president Randy Knight said last week that he had not communicated directly with Speed, but was under the impression that Speed would seek to overturn the law.

“We’re expecting one,” Knight said. “We’re still real optimistic, though. It’s hard to fathom that the Mississippi Supreme Court would do away with something that 73 percent of Mississippians are so strongly in favor of.”

Matt Steffey, a professor at Jackson’s Mississippi College School of Law who has followed each of the three initiatives closely, said the state’s high Court would not decide the issue based on its popularity, but on its legal merits.

“While I think that personhood clearly transcended the limits of what the initiative process can be used for, the eminent domain only arguably does,” he said.

What separates the two amendments, he said, is that the text of the Personhood initiative would have amended the Bill of Rights’ use of the word “person.”

“It sought to fundamentally redefine the balance of liberty contained in the Bill of Rights,” Steffey said. “It essentially took direct aim at the Bill of Rights. That’s not the way the text of the eminent domain initiative reads. So the argument is at least that much removed. The argument will be, in effect, that the Bill of Rights already strikes a balance between private property rights and governmental need. The argument could be that this alters that balance.”

“On the other hand,” Steffey continued, “it doesn’t add to or subtract from or redefine any of the words in the Bill of Rights. In that sense, it’s different. You could argue that it doesn’t modify any existing understanding of state constitutional law. Either way, I’m absolutely certain there will be a challenge to it.”

Categories: Elections, Eminent domain, News, Politics Tags:

Eminent domain bridges the great political divide (Updated)

November 9th, 2011 No comments

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.

Categories: Elections, Eminent domain, News, Politics Tags:

Hyundai in Mississippi — real deal, or eminent domain rallying cry?

September 16th, 2011 4 comments

Jackson television station WLBT’s Bert Case may have stumbled upon a major scoop Thursday during the course of an on-camera interview with MDA interim executive director Leland Speed.

Case was asking about the eminent domain initiative that will appear on the November ballot when, apparently, Speed mentioned the possibility of South Korean automaker Hyundai building a plant in Mississippi that would produce its Sonata sedan.

I first got wind of this about 3 p.m. Friday, and I’ve been calling everybody I think might know something since.

Two folks who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and who would know if negotiations were getting serious, said the same thing: They don’t know anything, and my mention of it is the first they’ve heard of anything relating to Mississippi getting a third automotive manufacturing plant.

Speed declined further comment to Case after the slip, and there’s zero chance Gov. Haley Barbour’s office will do anything different.

If you’re a conspiracy theorist, you could reason that Speed intentionally floated the idea that Hyundai is looking at Mississippi as an example of the damage he says the restriction of the use of eminent domain for private enterprise would cause the state’s economic development efforts. I’m not saying that is or isn’t the case. I’m just saying that the few times I’ve talked with Speed about taking away the state’s power of eminent domain for economic development, he’s been vigorous in his assertion that it would take the state out of the running for mega projects like a Hyundai facility. This would be the perfect way to prove that point.

This will be worth keeping eyes and ears on.

Categories: Eminent domain, Manufacturing, News Tags:

Speed sues Hosemann to keep eminent domain off ballot (Updated)

June 3rd, 2011 No comments

Mississippi Development Authority interim executive director Leland Speed has sued Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, in an attempt to keep the eminent domain petition off November’s ballot.

If you’ll recall, the petition seeks to prevent the taking of private land for private development. It keeps in place the state’s authority to seize private land for public-use projects, like streets or bridges.

Nearly 120,000 people signed petitions to get the issue on the ballot. Hosemann certified the results last year.

The Mississippi Development Authority and Gov. Haley Barbour were adamantly against the notion of eliminating the state’s authority to use eminent domain for private economic development. Barbour and Gray Swoope, Speed’s successor at MDA, warned that projects like Toyota wouldn’t be in Mississippi if the law were changed.

Following a failure to change the law in the Legislature, a petition drive led by the Mississipi Farm Bureau Federation commenced, and the issue was set for the November ballot, until Thursday afternoon.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for July 25 in Hinds County Circuit Court.

Pamela Weaver, spokesperson for Hosemann, just told Magnolia Marketplace that he would not comment beyond a statement, in which he said he intended to follow state law and place the initiative on the ballot, unless otherwise ordered by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

We’ve left a message on the cell phone of an MDA spokesperson, which wasn’t immediately returned.

For what it’s worth, Magnolia Marketplace several months ago polled the major contenders in the governor’s race — Phil Bryant, Dave Dennis, Bill Luckett, Johnny Dupree and Hudson Holliday — and they were of one mind: Eminent domain should be employed only for projects of direct public use, and that doesn’t include private economic development. Bryant, Dennis and Holliday each signed the petition to get the initiative on the ballot.

If and when we hear something from the MDA, we’ll post it. Rest assured, though: This is going to be a fight.

UPDATE: MDA spokesperson Melissa Medley just returned our call. She said that agency would have no comment on Speed’s lawsuit since he filed it as an individual, and not in his official capacity as interim executive director of the MDA.

We just got off the phone with Speed’s assistant, who said he was out of town and wouldn’t return until Monday around lunchtime. We’ll try to catch up with him then.

Hyde-Smith’s defection a step toward run for ag commish?

December 28th, 2010 No comments

New Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven cemented her status as one of Magnolia Marketplace’s favorite legislators in the 2009 session.

It was during the Senate’s debate before the vote on whether to override or sustain Gov. Haley Barbour’s veto of a bill that would have restricted the use of eminent domain for projects of direct public use, like roads and bridges, and eliminated it as a tool for private economic development.

As we all know, Barbour’s veto was sustained. Hyde-Smith voted to override it, but not before she gave one of the best floor speeches we’ve ever heard. The highlight of her diatribe was a warning to her fellow lawmakers. Hyde-Smith said her colleagues who voted to sustain Barbour’s veto “had better have asbestos underwear because somebody’s going to light your rear-end on fire when you get back home.” The rest of the day, folks called her “the asbestos lady.”

Hyde-Smith was one of three state officials who switched from the Democratic party to the GOP this afternoon, during a ceremony at Republican headquarters in Jackson. Magnolia Marketplace couldn’t make it because we had an appointment with a source we’d been trying to run down for more than a week.

Hyde-Smith joins Rep. Bobby Shows of Ellisville and Simpson County Superintendent of Education Joe Welch in trading a donkey for an elephant.

But it’s Hyde-Smith’s defection that is the most interesting, and here’s why: She’s a cattle farmer when she’s not at the capitol. She chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. The current commissioner of agriculture, Lester Spell, has already said he won’t seek re-election next year.

Even before November’s midterms, Democrats — with few exceptions like Attorney General Jim Hood — haven’t done well in statewide races.

We’ve heard Hyde-Smith’s name brought up in recent casual political conversations about candidates for down-ballot offices in 2011.

We ran this theory by two political types.

“Makes sense,” said one.

“We’ll see,” said the other.

We just left a voicemail on Hyde-Smith’s cell phone. If and when she gets back to us, we’ll let you know what she says.

Waide will not seek office in 2011 (Updated)

December 6th, 2010 No comments

Today’s a  big day for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. There’s an election to see who will succeed David Waide as president, and there’s the speculation about Waide’s political future.

According to a text message Magnolia Marketplace received this morning from somebody who’s at the election in Jackson, Waide told the crowd there that he will not seek any political office in 2011. Instead, he’s going to concentrate his energy on his farm in West Point.

This isn’t a huge shock, but it is a little bit of a surprise. A lot of people, us included, thought Waide would have been a strong candidate for commissioner of agriculture. Waide also considered running for governor.

Waide would have almost certainly made the issue of eminent domain being employed for private economic development the center of his campaign, had he run. Whoever the new Farm Bureau president is will deal with the push to the ballot initiative that will appear on the 2011 ballot.

We’ll fill in some details as the day goes on, so check back with us periodically.

 

UPDATE: Randy Knight, a dairy farmer from Rankin County, was just elected as the Farm Bureau Federation’s ninth president. Knight defeated Ken Middleton of Washington County and Brad Bean of Amite County. Knight beat Middleton in a run-off.

Gov. candidates of one mind on eminent domain (Update)

October 6th, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace is not finding much disagreement among the 2011 candidates for governor on the issue of employing eminent domain for private economic development.

Two of the three Republicans who are running support Farm Bureau’s efforts to put the issue on the ballot.

So do the two Democrats who hope to reach the Governor’s Mansion.

“As a businessman I strongly encourage economic development, but using eminent domain as a device to take privately owned land to transfer to developers is improper,” Bill Luckett, a Clarksdale attorney, said in a statement emailed to Magnolia Marketplace.

“Mississippians should be able to count on preserving their individual and personal rights against overbearing big government. (Farm Bureau’s) initiative protects private citizens from governmental abuse. Passing this initiative will greatly discourage government entities from taking one’s property for the sole purpose of making money.

“Unless property is taken truly for the good of the public, I do not believe in using confiscatory endeavors as a means of economic development.”

Luckett joins Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Gulfport businessman Dave Dennis in supporting the Farm Bureau petition.

“I tend to agree with them,” Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, a Democrat who will oppose Luckett in the primary, said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “It it is used for public use, I certainly support that.”

The other Republican in the race, Pearl River County Supervisor Hudson Holliday, has not returned a voicemail we left on his cell phone Tuesday afternoon. If and when he does, we’ll let you know his stance.

UPDATE : We just heard back from Holliday. He said he understands the principles behind employing eminent domain for private economic development. That doesn’t mean he agrees with them.

“It’s a slippery slope and something that can easily be abused,” Holliday said. Holliday added that he signed Farm Bureau’s petition. That makes two gubernatorial candidates — Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the other — who have confirmed that they signed it.

So if you’re scoring at home, every candidate who has either unofficially or officially started pursuing the governor’s seat is in favor of restricting the use of eminent domain to projects that serve a direct public use — like roads, bridges and utilities — and eliminating the government’s power to take private property and give it to a private entity for development.

Bryant, Dennis agree: No eminent domain for private use

September 30th, 2010 12 comments

If Dave Dennis and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant are going to butt heads over an issue in their bids to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2011, they’ll have to find something other than the use of eminent domain for private development.

Both are adamantly against it.

“I have long tried to find common ground between Farm Bureau and the Governor on this issue,” Bryant said in a press release. “There must be a balance between growing jobs in our state while not trampling the rights of our citizens. I am for property rights and congratulate Farm Bureau on what appears to be a successful petition drive.”

Bryant was referring to Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation handing over to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann Thursday morning 119,000 signatures of registered voters who oppose the use of eminent domain for private development. Mick Bullock, spokesman for Bryant, said the lieutenant governor was one of the folks who signed Farm Bureau’s petition.

Most likely, the issue will appear on the 2011 ballot. Bryant also alluded to Gov. Haley Barbour’s vehement opposition to the restriction. During the 2009 legislative session, Barbour vetoed a bill that would have eliminated the government’s power to employ eminent domain for projects that did not serve a direct public use, like roads or bridges. His veto was narrowly sustained in the Senate, after being overwhelmingly overridden in the House.

Barbour argued then that stripping government of the power to use eminent domain for private economic development would be deal-killers for major projects like Toyota and Nissan.

Dennis, a Gulfport businessman, disagrees.

“Plainly and simply, if a development is that good and that attractive and that resourceful, then there should be appropriate dollars associated (with it),” he said. “If somebody thinks there’s that good a return coming in, they should be willing to pay market or even premium-of-market value. If for some reason people still would not sell, then you work around them.”

Dennis told Magnolia Marketplace that he has had two pieces of property over the years seized by eminent domain, both times to clear the way for road-widening projects.

“That eminent domain I’m very comfortable with,” he said. “Eminent domain should not be used to take private property for private development. If you’ve got a piece of property that has stayed in your family, it’s hard for me to swallow somebody coming in and taking it.”