Florida, Texas Legislators Vow to Limit Eminent Domain

Published August 1, 2005

Legislators in many states reacted with indignation to what was widely characterized as an erosion of private property rights in the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 23 Kelo v. City of New London decision. Most notably, legislators in Florida and Texas have vowed to push for stronger state-level protections against over-aggressive takings of private property.

Florida House to Investigate

In Florida, House Speaker Allan Bense (R-Panama City) announced he will create a subcommittee to study existing property rights protections and identify areas of potential improvement. Rep. Marco Rubio (R-West Miami) will chair the subcommittee.

A central focus of the subcommittee will be to ensure no loopholes in state law allow local governments to take property merely for economic gain.

The subcommittee’s task, said Bense in a media statement, “will be to identify any areas of ambiguity and recommend appropriate changes to make sure the unfortunate situation we’ve seen in Connecticut is not repeated in the state of Florida.”

Lawmakers Troubled by Ruling

State Rep. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) told the June 25 Bradenton Herald he was troubled by the Supreme Court’s ruling and hoped to serve on the new subcommittee.

“If it [a permissible economic ‘taking’] is subject to interpretation by each of the 50 states, that’s very problematic,” Galvano told the Herald.

Attorney Jon Tileston told Tampa Bay’s Bay News 9 television station that Florida’s protections are already better than those in many other states. Although takings can occur, he noted, Florida property owners tend to be fairly compensated for their property.

“Florida law is very good to owners,” said Tileston. “It would be valued at its highest and best use.”

‘Absolute Last Resort’

Texas State Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine), chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, was even more adamant that his state legislature would commence work on safeguarding the property rights of its citizens.

According to the June 23 Houston Courier, Staples described the Supreme Court’s ruling as a “travesty” that approves the confiscation of private property for even “loosely organized” economic development. Calling government’s eminent domain power an “absolute last resort” for development purposes, Staples vowed to prevent in Texas the type of economic taking at issue in Kelo.

“I think it would be fair to say that the Legislature will closely monitor all actions in light of the Supreme Court issue,” Staples told the Courier. “We need to keep laws that favor landowners and not government. I expect (eminent domain) to be a premier issue for the 80th legislature.

“We can study those statutes in other states and hopefully benefit from the work that has been done,” Staples said. “We need to evaluate our laws and see to what extent they need addressing. But we need to be careful. If the language of a new bill is wrong, it could have negative, unintended consequences.”

States Can Increase Protection

Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, called the Kelo ruling “an awful decision” from a public policy perspective. But states can enact their own protections, he noted. “It places the issue of over-aggressive eminent domain actions back at the state level. Utah and Nevada provide outstanding examples of what states can do to protect their citizens.”

“A majority of the Court voted for yet another expansion of the government’s power to confiscate the property of ordinary citizens, this time holding that local governments can grab private homes if they turn them over to rich developers who will make ‘better’ use of the land,” Cato Institute Senior Fellow Mark Moller said. “It’s a decision that not only strikes at the heart of property rights but falls most heavily on small and middle income homeowners.”

Added Burnett, “Absent private property protections, what kind of security do individual homeowners or even businesses have? What kind of stable business climate does it create? It is wrong that an unelected council of business development boards can run roughshod over citizens and businesses. Who will want to buy homes or set up business in such places?”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.