Originally created 02/11/06

Push eminent domain reform



If the General Assembly fails to pass legislation strengthening Georgians' protection against having government seize their property, then this session - no matter what else lawmakers do - will be a colossal failure. That's not what incumbents should want in an election year.

The importance of reforming the state's eminent domain law can't be overstated in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's shocking decision last year empowering government to shift property from one owner to another in order to encourage economic development and boost government revenues.

This is why it was troubling when the state Senate postponed action on an eminent domain bill in order to sort out complications. Senators did, at least, unanimously approve placing a three-month ban on governments' ability to seize private land unless it's for public roads or public building projects.

Why limit the ban to three months? The Legislature won't be in session in three months. So why not make the ban permanent? Are they making the reform unnecessarily complicated? The answer may have come Wednesday, when Gov. Sonny Perdue presented his "two-pronged approach."

First, he's urging lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment to be on the November ballot. It would take the power of eminent domain away from nonelected officials, such as housing and development authorities - unless the property is so blighted that it poses a health or safety hazard. Perdue says only elected officials - directly answerable to the public - should have eminent domain authority.

That's a point that most Georgians, certainly if they own property, would agree with. Republicans are lining up in support, but since a constitutional amendment requires a super-majority vote in both chambers, the GOP will need help from minority Democrats. They would be smart to provide it - unless they want to go into the election as the party that blocked eminent domain reform.

The governor's second prong is legislative - and also deserves approval. It would prohibit eminent domain for purposes of economic development or to increase government revenues. Additionally, it would strengthen private property owners' due process rights and put a heavier burden on the government to show that the taking is legal.

The governor's comprehensive proposals clarify the need for change and go a long way to improve Georgians' property rights. The main obstacle to legislative passage is that the plans could get bogged down in political and legal maneuvering until time runs out. Conscientious lawmakers must not let that happen.