Mississippi Ballot Initiatives Part I: Eminent Domain

By Melody Worsham
In November, Mississippians will be looking at a very lengthly ballot. We will be voting for Governor and several other state officers, including Treasurer and Attorney General. We will also be choosing our U.S. representatives and senators. What Mississippi’s voters do not always get to do is vote on changes to the state’s constitution by placing them on the ballot. This year, on November 2nd, we will have the opportunity to vote on three ballot initiatives: Eminent Domain, Voter ID, and the Definition of Personhood. In the first part of this three-part series, the issue of Eminent Domain is the topic.
Mississippi’s current law is found in Title 11, Chapter 27, of the MS Code. According to the existing law, any person or corporation has the right to condemn property and make it available for public use. The entity files a request with the circuit clerk within the county where the piece of property is located. A court date is set and all parties who have an interest in the property have a chance to state their case about whether or not the property should be condemned. If the verdict is in favor of condemning the property, the owner is to be compensated at current market value for the property. Appeals can be made through the MS State Supreme Court. Eminent Domain provisions are also found in the U.S. Constitution. Amendment 5 of the Bill of Rights states, “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Historically, Eminent Domain laws have been used primarily for the building of roadways, bridges, utility easements, drainage projects and port expansions, all of which fall under “public use,” which means that the public as a whole benefits from such construction. According to the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, who initiated the petition to place Eminent Domain reform on the ballot, there have been many instances where the courts have taken property for public use, then sold it to a private company for their own profit and benefit. State courts have argued that anything that generates more tax revenue is ultimately beneficial to the public, but the Farm Bureau says this interpretation of “public use” stretched the intent of the law and threatens the fundamental rights to property ownership.
The new law would first prohibit the sale of condemned property to a private entity until ten years after the property is acquired through Eminent Domain proceedings. This will, in effect, discourage corruption deriving from cronyism, or showing favoritism toward one private entity over another. If a profiteer intends to use the property for their own benefit, and not that of the public, they will have to wait 10 years to do so. The new provision would not affect properties that are condemned because they are truly hazards to public safety or where emergency easements are needed to protect the public safety after a natural disaster. The ten-year waiting period would also not effect properties that are taken for traditional uses, such as highways, drainage, or public utility easements.
Nearly 120,000 Mississippians signed the petition to have the Eminent Domain law reform on the 2011 ballot. Only 89,285 signatures were required. Nearly 10% of the signatures were from Mississippi’s three Coastal counties. In the past, current US Representative, Steven Palazzo (MS-4th District) has voted against Eminent Domain reform almost 20 times while serving in the state legislature, stating that the changes were “bad policy,” because they did not go far enough to reduce Eminent Domain powers. One of Palazzo’s last acts as a state legislator was to support House Bill 918, which completely prohibits all Eminent Domain seizures to be used for private profit and use. Governor Haley Barbour has opposed past attempts to limit Eminent Domain powers. He believes it would weaken the state’s ability to attract major industries, if they were not allowed to use Eminent Domain powers to acquire land for commercial development. In 2009, the state senate voted unanimously to support Eminent Domain reform. Governor Barbour vetoed the measure immediately.
Currently, the Mississippi Coast Coliseum is trying to use Eminent Domain powers to purchase homes in the neighborhood to the north side in order to expand parking space. The new reform law would not affect this case because the Coast Coliseum is a government entity, not a private enterprise.
You can learn more about Ballot Initiative 31 by visiting the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website at http://www.sos.ms.gov/page.aspx?s=7&s1=1&s2=55 or MS Farm Bureau’s website at http://www.savingmyland.org.
One of our nation’s greatest leaders, James Madison, wrote, “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort… that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.” With that sentiment in mind, it is important for all Mississippians to vote their conscience on November 2nd. Your vote is your voice in government. See you at the polls!
Personhood Defined

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