When the Alabama Legislative session ended last week, so did the debate over the most recent eminent domain bill.
Eminent domain is the process by which the state can take private property and use it for governmental use, provided the owner receives just compensation.
The bill, which would have created a constitutional amendment further restricting the government in making land grabs, was killed as the session dismissed at 2:45 a.m. April 18.
Last August, the Legislature passed a law protecting Alabamians’ property rights. That legislation was in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London, which made it legal for states to take land and turn it over for private, residential or commercial use. The Alabama law made that illegal.
When the law was passed in August, many citizens expressed concern at the possibility of a loophole because of the blight exception. Blight means that if property is damaged or hindering growth in some way, it can be condemned, then turned over for private use.
Much of the content of the new legislation would have addressed the blight issue.
Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, introduced the bill in the Senate, where it passed with a vote 24-1. But it came up nine votes short of the minimum 63 to pass in the House.
The bill would have created an amendment concerning eminent domain, then citizens of Alabama would have had the chance to vote on the amendment during an upcoming election.
“The reason for amendment is that statutes can be changed rather easily,” said Freddie Patterson, director of governmental affairs for the Alabama Farmers Federation. “It’s more difficult to change an amendment,” he added, explaining that the law in August was passed as a statute.
Patterson said farmers and forestry industries had high interests at stake in the amendment.
“We could be blighted on current law definitions,” Patterson said. “But it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. ... We wanted to make sure that blight is really blight.”
Rep. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, said the House wanted higher standards for the bill, especially in the area of compensation.
“I don’t think we ran out of goodwill, I think we ran out of time,” Brewbaker said, explaining that it was already late in the day when the bill was being pushed through.
Brewbaker said he didn’t think a bill proposing an amendment should be hurried through the way this one was.
“The Legislature needs to make sure it’s the best deal we can write,” he said.
Brewbaker said the real death sentence for the bill was an amendment added by the House at the last minute that changed the date of the election.
The citizens of Alabama would have been voting on the constitutional amendment on a day with historically low voter turnouts.
Patterson said the bill would have done more than strengthen the blight definition. It would have clarified about when property can be taken for public use.
“Public use and public benefit get cross-wired sometimes,” Patterson said.
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