Legislators passed an omnibus senate bill this session, designed to strengthen protections for private property. As the campaign season heats up, incumbent legislators will inevitably trumpet the bill as proof of having your best interests at heart, despite many voting against common-sense reforms offering true property protection.
Senate Bill 18 was one of the first major bills this session attempting to make more reforms on the use of eminent domain authority. While as a whole the bill did take some good steps forwards, legislators left much to be desired by inaction on several key improvements.
One in particular was the addition of a “necessary takings” clause. Specifically, by adding the word “necessary”, the legislature could have required all entities with eminent domain authority to prove that the land they seek to take is absolutely essential for whatever public project they plain to build.
This simple amendment to the bill would have given property owners more protection against eminent domain abuses, but the majority of your representatives thought added protections for property owners was unnecessary.
The House also voted down an amendment that would only allow land taken for oil and gas pipelines to be used to transport oil and gas – preventing the operators of those pipelines from using the land for exploration or office space.
This measure was voted down by a 123-22 margin.
Conservatives in the House did pass one important reform, known as the “buyback provision”. Prior to this bill passing, a property owner only had the ability to repurchase their land taken by eminent domain if the public use for that land was canceled before the 10th anniversary of the date of acquisition. In other words, so long as it was planned to be used for a public use for 10 years, there wasn’t much a property owner could do. And if land was eligible to be repurchased, the owner had to repay the exact amount they were paid when their land was taken, no matter how much the property value had dropped since then.
Thankfully, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst added an amendment to fix this problem. Her proposal allowed property owners to repurchase their land at either A) The price paid to them when their land was taken or B) the fair market value of their land when they become eligible to buy it back, whichever is less. It also removed the 10 year eligibility window, meaning any time a planned public use is canceled for an owners land, they can buy it back no matter how much time has passed.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, there were still members of the House that voted against such common sense reforms. After the motion to table this amendment failed, an abnormally high number of members (nearly 40) issued journal statements changing their votes to support it. Seven GOP members still remained in opposition, listed below with their 2011 Fiscal Responsibility Index score:
- Charlie Geren (R – River Oaks) C+
- Larry Gonzales (R – Round Rock) D
- Rick Hardcastle (R – Vernon) D
- Tyron Lewis (R – Odessa) C+
- Lanham Lyne (R – Wichita Falls) D+
- Allan Ritter (R – Nederland) F
- Wayne Smith (R – Baytown) D+
Unfortunately, when the bill went to conference committee, the conferees removed some of Rep. Kolkhorst’s language. They did however, keep her idea to remove the 10 year-window to buy back land. It’s not quite the victory conservatives originally thought they had earned, but it’s a positive improvement nonetheless.