It all seems so reasonable. The state is short on revenues to keep up with infrastructure needs. So instead of raising taxes and doing the work itself, the state finds a supplemental funding source by contracting with a private company to do the work after the state purchases the necessary property.
This kind of public-private arrangement has been going on for years in many states, including Georgia, to advance transportation, environmental and other public benefit needs.
And in many cases, these are good deals when all parties agree. But in recent years, states have been entering into contracts to push economic development - and now serious questions are being raised. Why? Because of abuses. Many state and local governments employ the power of eminent domain to declare property blighted, buy it for pennies on the dollar, and then sell it for big bucks to improve their tax base.
Usually, the government sells the land it acquires to a wealthy corporation or large retailer that can create jobs and grow the tax base, thus generating more revenues for the government.
These kind of abuses have prompted criticism by Democrats and others of a Georgia Senate bill supported by the GOP leadership that, until recently, had been flying under the radar. The measure, S.B. 5, would allow private developers to request local government to exercise the power of eminent domain to seize private land.
It is one thing for government to use eminent domain for necessary government business, but it's a flagrant violation of Fifth Amendment property rights for the government to forcibly take from one property owner and give to another.
But S.B. 5 gets worse. It also allows for some secrecy in the dealings between government and developers. The secrecy is necessary, say supporters, to protect developers' large investments.
That's nonsense. Secrecy in government activities is an invitation to corruption. It never fails. That's why we have a free press and sunshine laws. Indeed, we're astounded that Republicans are pushing such a bill. It's not what we expected from a party that is supposed to be the enemy of big government and, in Georgia, has been kept out of power, and often in the dark, for more than 100 years.
Not all Republicans are on the wrong side of this issue, however. Freshman Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, is sponsoring legislation to bar local governments from using eminent domain to claim land for economic development. Now, that's a bill all Georgians should buy into.
It's simply wrong for the government to fatten its coffers by taking from one property owner to give to another.
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