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Farm Bureau chief: Eminent domain push to continue despite lawsuit

The president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation says that organization’s advertising campaign aimed at convincing voters to restrict the state’s use of eminent domain will go forward, even though there is now a chance the initiative won’t even be on the November ballot.

Leland Speed, the interim executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, has sued Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann to keep Initiative 31 off the general election ballot. The initiative asks voters whether the state should have the power to invoke eminent domain to acquire private land that would be used for a private economic development project. Hosemann certified last year the petitions Farm Bureau played a large part in gathering from registered voters who hoped to place in the state constitution an amendment that limited the use of eminent domain for projects for direct public use, like roads and bridges. Speed argues in his complaint that amending the state constitution via the initiative process is unconstitutional.

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

“We’ve gone to so much time and work to get it on the ballot we’re not just going to sit back and see what happens,” said Randy Knight, who has been Farm Bureau president since December, when he succeeded David Waide, who started the petition-gathering drive.

Knight said the eminent domain advertising would begin in early July.

“We had planned on getting started on our ad campaign to vote yes on 31, and get the people thinking about what eminent domain was and private property rights. We’re still going to get that process started.”

Speed, who filed the suit as an individual and not in his official capacity as MDA interim executive director, says there’s no need to change the law.

“Having been involved in economic development in this state over a lifetime, but more particularly these last few years, I don’t see a need for this whole thing,” he said. “I don’t see where we have a problem (with current law). I’m not seeing citizens come forward and saying my property rights have been abused.”

Hosemann issued a press release that said he planned to put the initiative on the ballot “unless otherwise ordered by the Mississippi Supreme Court.” His spokesperson, Pamela Weaver, said last week Hosemann would not comment beyond that.

The issue of when and for what the state can use eminent domain has simmered since the last few days of the 2009 legislative session. A bill that would have restricted the use of it to public use projects sailed through the Legislature originally, passing the House with fewer than a half-dozen dissenters. It cleared the Senate unanimously. But Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed it, and it was sustained in the Senate with a few votes to spare. That’s when Waide and Farm Bureau began the initiative process.

Speed makes the same argument now that Barbour did then: Changing the law would preclude mega-projects like Toyota or Nissan from coming to Mississippi.

“For example, there was a church site smack in the middle of the Toyota plant,” Speed said. “The church went out of business in 1927. Who do you go get a deed from? You have mineral interests that just get spread among offspring to two, three and four generations. You just simply have to have a clear title before somebody’s going to spend their billion dollars on your piece of real estate. The only way to describe it is nuts. The system works.”

Knight disputes that, saying the state could have acquired the old church property without the use of eminent domain. Knight acknowledges that there’s hasn’t been a severe problem with the state’s current eminent domain law, but it has in other states with similar statutes.

“I totally disagree with Mr. Speed’s position,” Knight said. “He’s looking at it from the eyes of a developer or a builder and not so much as a landowner. If it was that big an issue, why would there be so much development in other states that have this (restrictive) law? The State of Mississippi owns thousands of acres of land. If they want to bring in a Toyota or Nissan or whatever, put it on some of the state land. Don’t take somebody’s land if they’re not willing to sell it. We think that deed still means something.”

Republican gubernatorial candidates Dave Dennis, Hudson Holliday and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant have told the Mississippi Business Journal within the past year that they support limiting the state’s eminent domain power only for public infrastructure projects. Each signed the petition to put the measure on the ballot. Democrat candidates Bill Luckett and Hattiesburg mayor Johnny Dupree also support restricting the state’s eminent domain authority.

Speed is undeterred.

“Small children and old people sometimes will blurt out obvious truths that are awkward or unpopular. I guess I might qualify for that.”

With an initial hearing in late July, and with the loser certain to appeal to the state Supreme Court, the final judgment on the matter could come awfully close to the Nov. 8 election.

“Our attorneys have told us that there will be a ruling on it in time to make sure it will or will not be on the ballot,” Knight said. “So we’re moving full-speed ahead on it. We feel real confident that the judges will see it our way and it will be on the ballot. Whether or not that’s the right way or the wrong way to handle it, I don’t know. We still feel like it’s our obligation to do that. We’re going to make an all-out effort to inform people about the issue.”

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About Clay Chandler