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Mississippi is one of only eight states that haven’t passed eminent domain reform legislation that would prevent the taking of private property for commercial development.
David Waide and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation want to reduce that number by one, and a statewide petition drive is now under way to get the issue on a general election ballot.
The majority of states have enacted eminent domain reform laws following a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Kelo v. City of New London) which said a Connecticut city could take people’s homes and turn the property over to a private party to develop for its own profit. The court justified its decision by saying the increased tax revenue from the developed property would benefit the public and that the use of the property was, therefore, a public use.
“For three years, we worked with the Mississippi legislature, trying to get reform, either by statute or through a change to the constitution,” says Waide, who is president of the state farm organization.
“Two years in a row, we managed to get bills through both houses,” he said in a recent interview, “but we couldn’t get a conference committee report and a bill to the governor. Then, last year, we got passage overwhelmingly in the Senate and the House, but the governor vetoed it and we lost by just six votes in an attempted veto override in the Senate.
“When I testified before the committees early in January 2009, I told them that would be the last attempt we’d make at trying to do this through the statutory or legislative process — that if it failed again, we’d try taking it to the voters of the state with a ballot initiative. So, I’m keeping my word and we’re going at it in another direction.
“We’ve got the petition completed and approved by the state attorney general and secretary of state, and we’re now in the process of collecting signatures.”
If the initiative passes, Waide says, “It will greatly discourage government entities from taking private property for economic development.”
Several key legislators have voiced support for the effort.
“I think if this goes to a referendum, it will pass overwhelmingly,” says Cindy Hyde-Smith, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Our weakest poll has shown that 75 percent of Mississippians favor strong property rights.”
“When a person doesn’t want to sell, the threat of eminent domain takes away the fairness to the person who owns the land and gives the advantage to the person wanting the property,” says Greg Ward, chair of the House Agriculture Committee.
In an interview with Delta Farm Press, Waide discussed the ballot initiative and other issues in which Farm Bureau is active:
What’s required to get the eminent domain issue on the ballot and for passage?
“We need just a bit over 90,000 signatures. The petition has been distributed through our Farm Bureau magazine and is now available at all our offices statewide. Petition forms can also be printed out on the Web site Saving My Land I don’t have a count yet of how many signed petitions we already have — it’s still very early in the process — but we get a bundle of them every day.
“The requirement is that we get signatures from 20 percent of the registered voters in the five congressional districts that were in effect in 1990, so we have to sort them by those districts.
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem to get more than enough signatures. We’ve got over 200,000 Farm Bureau member families in Mississippi, representing an estimated 600,000 registered voters.
Was any reason given for the governor’s veto of a measure that had won overwhelming approval in both houses?
“I never heard any official reason. There was talk at the time that if such legislation had been in place, we would not have got either the Nissan or Toyota plants in Mississippi.
“I attended the hearings in the eminent domain case related to the Nissan plant, and the judge ruled in favor of the landowner, saying the state couldn’t take the land through eminent domain for economic development. The only land that was taken through eminent domain for the Nissan plant was for access roads and other infrastructure that was for true public use.
“The same was true for the Toyota plant; the only land taken through eminent domain was for roads for public use.”
The U.S. Supreme Court decision has been widely denounced.
“Farm Bureau and many other organizations disagree with the decision. Just because a big company or a developer has the wealth to build a hotel or office building on property that will generate revenue doesn’t justify the government taking that property from its owner and turning it over to a wealthier party. Constitutional rights shouldn’t be determined by financial statements, or favor the wealthy over the less wealthy.
“We don’t think commercial development constitutes true public use. The Supreme Court decision was a very narrow 5-4 vote, which indicates there was significant dissent. We just want to insure that Mississippians won’t be subject to having their land taken for anything other than what has traditionally been considered a true public use — roads, schools, airports, waterways, etc.
“Among the rights we have as Americans is the right to own property. I personally consider it a sacred right and that it’s the right thing to do to protect the property owner from having his land taken, against his will, for commercial development. I think we owe it to everyone who’s ever fought for, or paid any price for this country and its freedoms, to have a law that protects their property rights.”
What’s the timetable, moving ahead?
“If the petition drive succeeds, the measure will be on the general election ballot in 2011. If approved by the voters, it would take effect as soon as the vote could be certified.
“The authority for a government to take property through eminent domain is in the Mississippi Bill of Rights. For more than 175 years, the Mississippi constitution has had a provision that private property can’t be taken for public use, except upon due compensation first being made to the owner or owners.
“The legislation we’re proposing won’t prevent the taking, but if property is taken through eminent domain, this legislation will keep them from transferring it for economic development for a period of 10 years. I frankly don’t think anyone would be willing to wait 10 years to be able to get title to develop property acquired through eminent domain.
“Some 42 states have already passed eminent domain laws; Mississippi and only a few others have not, and thus property owners remain vulnerable to these takings for commercial development.”
In other issues, Mississippi Farm Bureau is looking into ways to improve risk management products available to farmers through crop insurance?
“We’ve formed a committee of producers from our membership to review risk management products to look at why the South has been disenfranchised in some of the products available to farmers in other parts of the country.
“We’ve asked the committee to identify what they consider the weakest areas of the products that are available for southern crops. We hope to work through the process and get the Risk Management Agency to amend the product offerings to southern producers so we can be assured that we have products at least equal to those available to producers in other parts of the country.
“We have more inherent risk here than in other areas. On the western side of Mississippi, we have an issue of flooding because pumps haven’t been installed in the southern part of the Delta, and some areas between the levees can’t be insured.
“It’s just a high risk area in which to farm and we want to try and address some of those problems.”
Farm Bureau was also successful in its effort to defeat an animal cruelty bill in the state legislature.
“Farm Bureau has been opposed to the bills that have been offered.
“While I’m sure animal rights activists believe in their cause, the underlying fact of the matter is that the Humane Society of the U.S. is the organization that was really pushing the bill.
“If you go to their Web site, you’ll see that their mission is simply to do away with meat animal production. In Mississippi, meat animal production — beef cattle, poultry, swine — represents $2.75 billion of farmgate value. It’s a huge part of our agriculture and our state’s economy and a major employer because of all the processing that’s done here.
“In at least three other states where they’ve passed laws making animal cruelty a felony violation, I think we’ll see meat animal producing leaving those areas because of the management practices that will be required as a result of potential felony convictions hanging over them and other related animal welfare issues.”
“You’re now in your seventh term as president of Mississippi Farm Bureau and recently announced your intent to retire when this term ends. What’s ahead for you?
“I decided about eight months ago that I wouldn’t seek another term, and I made the announcement at our January board meeting so everyone would know and to afford anyone wanting to run for the position an opportunity to do so.
“My term will end Dec. 6 — exactly 14 years since I was first elected. I’ve been unopposed for all but one term, and won that one overwhelmingly, so I have a lot of gratitude to our Farm Bureau members for the confidence they’ve shown in me and the support they’ve given our programs over the years.
“I can’t take credit for what has been accomplished — we’ve got 82 county organizations, with volunteer leaders who are on a first-name basis with their legislators, and those legislators recognize that Farm Bureau policies are well-thought-out and very relevant to the state’s citizens. The legislators listen to our members, because they know they have the welfare of our state at heart.
“I’ve had numerous calls and e-mails about running for public office, and have had a couple of appointments offered to me.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought, but until December, I’m going to devote all my energies to a successful Farm Bureau agenda, and after that I’ll weigh my options.