EMINENT DOMAIN REFORM: BAD CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES LAST FOREVER

On Monday, May 11, the Texas House unanimously passed a joint resolution, H.J.R. 14 by Frank Corte, that proposes to amend the Texas Constitution in the following ways.

  • Require that compensation for eminent domain be “just.”
  • Require that land condemned by a city be strictly for the “possession, occupation, and enjoyment” of the property by “the public at large…or by a political subdivision of the State…”.
  • Require that specific relocation and standard-of-living damages be paid for condemnation of a homestead or farm.

As reported in a previous edition of the TML Legislative Update, a related bill (S.B. 18 by Duncan) is moving through the legislative process and is likely to pass. That bill addresses many of the same topics as H.J.R. 14, but with one important difference: it wouldn’t change the Texas Constitution, as H.J.R. 14 proposes to do. That’s important because changes to the Texas Constitution are for all practical purposes permanent. Should such a constitutional amendment do something unintended, legitimate eminent domain necessary for state and local public projects could grind to a halt.

For example, the resolution as it passed the House requires that the public or the governmental unit exercising eminent domain exercise “possession, occupation, and enjoyment” of the condemned property. This language is intended to overturn the authority of governments to condemn land and sell or lease it to third parties for economic development purposes. What the resolution fails to resolve, however, are situations in which a government may wish to lease a small portion of condemned property to a third-party vendor who provides services—a maintenance facility at an airport, for instance. As it stands, H.J.R. 14 would jeopardize the authority of all levels of government to allow private vendors to provide ancillary services at public facilities. There may be other serious problems with the resolution that could surface later on during legal proceedings when it would be too late for the legislature to easily undo them.

City officials should contact their senators now with the following message: Please oppose H.J.R. 14 because it will place a cloud of doubt over legitimate eminent domain actions. As a result, mistakes made in the process (and there will undoubtedly be some) could haunt Texas governmental operations for years to come.

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Texas Municipal League.

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