(Alexandria, VA) -- Thanks to an unwise U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer, citizens can't afford to wait for protections from government's power to take private property for economic development: that's the message an expert from the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union (NTU) gave Arkansas lawmakers today at a joint House-Senate hearing in Little Rock on remedies for "eminent domain" abuse. NTU has approximately 4,000 members in Arkansas.
"Taxpayers have a significant interest not only in maintaining individual property rights, but in protecting themselves against the often misguided and expensive plans of government officials and politically-connected developers," said NTU Director of Government Affairs Paul Gessing in testimony before the House and Senate Committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. "Despite the [U.S. Constitution's] prohibition against taking private property for public use without just compensation, the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Kelo throws the door open for eminent domain as long as government officials have a 'plan' and believe there will be some economic benefit from the taking."
In June, the nation's highest court held that the City of New London, Connecticut was justified in seizing the property of Susette Kelo and her fellow homeowners on behalf of a private party that claimed it could generate higher economic activity and tax revenues if the land were put to a different use. Although this power of "eminent domain" has been subject to past controversy, the latest ruling has drawn fire from citizen groups across the political spectrum.
Gessing cited numerous instances from a recent study he prepared on eminent domain abuses throughout the country that have cleared the way for taxpayer-subsidized retail outlets, factories, and "mixed-use" complexes. As he told lawmakers, however, "these schemes have often left the local economies they were supposed to benefit worse off than they were before," by chasing away existing businesses and failing to deliver on inflated promises of "jobs" and financial windfalls.
Although Gessing noted that Arkansas' existing laws have made the practice of using eminent domain for private benefit less common than in states like New York and Ohio, lawmakers must take additional steps in light of the Kelo ruling, which has greatly diminished the ability of homeowners and businesspeople to enforce their property rights in court. In addition, Arkansas statutes still provide latitude for abuse in certain areas, such as permitting expansive definitions of "blight" that could embolden local officials to overuse eminent domain powers.
In recommending that the Legislature more specifically define the "conditions under which eminent domain can and cannot be used," Gessing concluded by urging lawmakers to "act as quickly as possible to address this issue... [I]n the course of a busy legislative calendar, it is easy for issues not directly related to the budget process or education to be left unaddressed."
NTU is a non-partisan citizen group working for lower taxes, smaller government, and economic freedom at all levels. Note: Gessing's testimony, along with his study, Issue Brief 148, Eminent Domain Abuse: If They Can't Tax It, They'll Just Take It, is available at www.ntu.org.