With Democratic leaders changing course Tuesday, a [North Carolina] House committee refused to consider a constitutional amendment that would ban the use of eminent domain for the sake of economic development, instead sending it to another committee.
The House panel last week first considered altering the constitution to ban the practice. But just weeks after approving a regular bill on the same issue, seven Democratic lawmakers decided in a partisan vote to move the constitutional provision to the more powerful rules committee.
"No reason has yet to be given as to why people should not be protected in the Constitution," said Rep. Paul Stam, the architect of the constitutional amendment that had a bipartisan 88 sponsors. "Now the protection is likely dead."
Rules committee chairman Mickey Michaux affirmed that fear, calling the constitutional amendment "done."
"We don't like to tinker with the constitution unless it's absolutely necessary," said Michaux, D-Durham, echoing the arguments of Democrats who changed their position in committee. "The changes in statutes that we already passed make the law very clear."
Michaux was referring to another eminent domain measure, which the House unanimously approved earlier in the month. But the Senate on Monday took the bill onto the floor only to send it back to committee, with Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand asking about the proposal's purpose.
While Rand later said the bill will likely come to the floor before the end of the short session, Republicans fear the measure won't make it to the governor.
"There's not going to be any serious eminent domain reform out of this Assembly with the current leadership," said Stam, R-Wake.
Prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that opened the door to government takings for the sake of economic development, property owners nationwide have urged their state legislatures to shore up eminent domain laws. More than a dozen state governments have considered changes since the decision, and one, Michigan, passed a constitutional amendment.
Amid the scramble, Andy Romanet of the North Carolina League of Municipalities questioned whether a hastily written constitutional amendment was the right way to address the problem if there was a problem at all.
"It may make people feel good, but we really don't think a constitutional amendment's necessary," Romanet said. "But, if they do it, they need to proceed with caution. We had some concerns about the way it was written."
The coalition, representing about 522 local governments in North Carolina, along with Democratic leadership, helped thwart the constitutional amendment. Both groups said North Carolina law may already prohibit the use of eminent domain for private projects.
"Republicans seem to use constitutional amendments a lot to get out voters," said House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg. "But we try not to touch the constitution when it can be done by changing state law."
However, Republicans such as Rep. Nelson Dollar pointed to the Supreme Court case of one year ago, which allowed a Connecticut town to seize 15 waterfront households as the site for office buildings, a marina and a Pfizer research center. Land rights advocates argue that Connecticut's law was similarly ambiguous.
"Taking people's land for economic development is against any fundamental tenant of American government," said Dollar, R-Wake. "This would simply put it on the ballot for the people to decide."
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