Tomorrow, Mississippi voters will decide the fate of Measure 31, an important eminent domain reform proposal. Mississippi is one of only seven states that has not enacted any eminent domain reforms at all since the Supreme Court’s decision controversial decision upholding “economic development” takings in Kelo v. City of New London.
Measure 31 would effectively ban economic development takings by forbidding most condemnations that transfer land to private parties during the first ten years after condemnation. Economic development condemnations are often used by powerful interest groups to acquire land for themselves at the expense of the poor and politically weak. In Mississippi, recent condemnations have transferred land to big auto firms such as Nissan and Toyota. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and others claim that these takings are needed to promote economic growth. In reality, economic development condemnations often destroy far more economic value than they create, by wiping out homes, small businesses and schools.
Many of the post-Kelo reform laws enacted in other states fail to impose genuinely effective restrictions on economic development condemnations. Legislators have found various ways to produce bills that have major loopholes. The most common tactic is that of allowing economic development condemnations to continue under the guise of alleviating “blight.” Many states define “blight” so broadly that almost any neighborhood qualifies and is therefore subject to condemnation. Such unlikely areas as downtown Las Vegas and New York’s Times Square have been declared “blighted” for the purpose of justifying condemnations. The New York Court of Appeals recently upheld blight takings justified by a combination of virtually limitless definitions of blight and biased studies conducted by a firm with a severe conflict of interest. Fortunately, Measure 31 avoids this pitfall by forbidding blight takings except in cases where the land in question is severely dilapidated or poses a direct threat to public health and safety.
Politicians enact ineffective reform laws in part because it is difficult for voters to tell the difference between a real “anti-Kelo” bill and one just for show. A 2007 Saint Index survey found that only about 13% of Americans knew whether or not their state had passed an effective post-Kelo reform law. As I explain in this article, referendum initiatives like Measure 31 tend to be stronger than reforms adopted by state legislatures because many of them are drafted by activists rather than by politicians. Measure 31 was submitted by the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation (small farmers are often victims of eminent domain in the state). The vast majority of post-Kelo referenda adopted by voters impose tough restrictions on takings.
Unlike state legislators, the property rights activists who wrote most of the citizen-initiated anti-Kelo ballot initiatives had no need to appease powerful pro-condemnation interest groups in order to improve their reelection chances.
Measure 31 isn’t perfect. It still leaves the door open to abusive takings in genuinely blighted areas, and possibly to dubious condemnations on behalf of common carriers and public utilities. But it’s still a huge improvement over the status quo in Mississippi, which includes both an extremely broad definition of blight and a statute authorizing large-scale economic development takings.