No sooner had the General Assembly reconvened in session on Wednesday than the first legislative bill was filed. It involves an issue with which lawmakers are very familiar.
House Bill 3 would amend the state constitution to grant protection to private property owners from the government taking their land. The bill states: “Private property shall not be taken by eminent domain except for a public use. Just compensation shall be paid and shall be determined by a jury at the request of any party.”
The bill will be debated in committee, and, given past experience, one would very reasonably assume on the floors of the House and Senate. The legislation has failed to pass in past sessions.
Robert Whaples, a Wake Forest University economics professor, said it is vital to provide protection to property owners in a free society for a number of reasons, including economic stability and growth. He said an eminent domain constitutional amendment is one way that has been approached.
Whaples said other states have adopted constitutional amendments restricting eminent domain in reaction to what is referred to as the Kelo case in Connecticut. In that instance, the Supreme Court ruled government could seize private property, and give it to another private property owner to enhance economic development.
“If it is truly for the public’s interest, the good of the public, then obviously we need them to be able to flatten some homes and build a highway so we all can get where we need to go,” Whaples said.
“But what we saw with Kelo and other things like that was basically abuse of that power so that they could take some resources and give them to the people that are their friends, and people who know how to work the government so well — the big, well connected people — to the detriment of the little guy,” Whaples said.
Like the state Map Act, which was nullified by legislation passed last year, Whaples said, “eminent domain has the power so much to be abused.”
Under the Map Act, if the government identified a corridor for possible future development of a highway, it would freeze affected property owners’ ability to develop or make improvements on their property because the state didn’t want to pay a higher purchase price down the road when the highway project was ready to proceed.
That essentially was a government taking of property in which owners “were held in legal limbo,” and found it difficult to sell their property. Often the housing wasn’t maintained well, or owners moved out and transformed their buildings into “crummy rental places,” Whaples said.
But whether it’s the Map Act or eminent domain, Whaples reasons that government should tread carefully not to unduly undermine property ownership.
“I think the reasoning behind private property rights is known anciently,” and was written about by bygone philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Dominican priest who analyzed the subject in his classic “Suma Theologica” written between 1265-74, Whaples said.
“The first thing he points out is that when someone owns property, rather than it being collectively owned, they take care of it better since its theirs, and they get the benefits of doing it,” Whaples said.
“The second thing about having private property that he talks about is it’s going to cut down on people shirking. If we’re all working together, and nobody actually owns anything, what incentive do I have to work hard?” Whaples said.
“And so when we start to undermine private property people back away from all of those things,” he said.