Mississippi Voters to Consider New Law Limiting Eminent Domain Authority

When Mississippi voters go to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new governor and legislature, they will also be handed three ballot initiatives, including one that would restrict the state's ability to expropriate land under eminent domain laws.

Initiative 31 would impose a 10-year waiting period on any eminent domain taking if a private property were to be transferred to another person.

At the heart of this initiative is the 2005 US Supreme Court case Kelo v City of New London. In that case, the justices ruled 5-4 that the state of Connecticut could take the home owned by Suzette Kelo and turn it over to a private developer, who wanted to put up a hotel, condos and a shopping complex.

"We've just looked around the country and seen what's happening in other states and we're just trying to be proactive," said Randy Knight, who is leading the charge for passage of 31. "We're trying to put out the fire before it gets here."

Knight is a Mississippi dairy farmer and president of the state Farm Bureau Federation. The Farm Bureau is the driving force behind the initiative -- taking the issue to the people after Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed two similar measures that came from the Legislature.

"We just don't think the government has the power or the authority to take private land and turn it over to someone else for economic development," Knight told Fox News.

The Farm Bureau has mounted an aggressive campaign of billboards, radio and Internet ads imploring voters to "stop eminent domain abuse." Opponents of Initiative 31 say that's just plain misleading.

"They're running billboards that say stop eminent domain abuse. What abuse? Show me a victim," said Leland Speed, the director of Mississippi's Development Authority.

Speed says the only recent example of the state taking property is in Blue Springs -- near Tupelo. There, the state took land from a church to build a Toyota assembly plant. The grand opening is next week.

But the church had closed down in 1927. The land was abandoned -- no owner could be found to see if they wanted to sell to Toyota. The state put $330,000 in a trust account. No one has come forward to claim it.

Speed says if Initiative 31 passes, it could kill the type of jobs projects that the state put together with Toyota.

"I have had an opportunity to see what is necessary to attract mega-projects and what has to happen," he said. "And this totally messes up our ability to compete effectively."

Bishop Ronnie Crudup of the New Horizon Church agrees. He has campaigned in barbershops and other venues across the city, hoping to get people to vote against 31.

"Talk radio, been on television and different things like that, talking about it just to let them know this is bad for the state of Mississippi. We need to do everything we can to encourage job creation and to do something that would shoot ourselves in the foot," Crudup said.

Supporters of the measure dismiss talk that Initiative 31 will be a jobs killer.

"We're one of only seven states that haven't adopted a strong eminent domain law," Knight said. "Other states have adopted a strong eminent domain law. They're still getting jobs. They're still getting economic development. They're still getting businesses to come set up in their state."

According to Steve Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute For Justice, 43 states have revised their laws regarding private property and eminent domain. Twenty-two of them have laws that are just as strong as the measure that's on the Mississippi ballot next Tuesday, Bullock said.

The most outspoken foe of Initiative 31 is Barbour. He says people are under the misimpression that it will stop all cases of eminent domain expropriation.

"It will not affect more than 99 percent of the eminent domain cases in Mississippi -- they're exempt," he said.

This time around, though, Barbour does not have the power of the veto pen. This one is in the hands of the people.

Both candidates to replace the term-limited Barbour -- Republican Phil Bryant and Democrat Johnny DuPree -- have thrown their full support behind the initiative. Speed said he thinks opponents are fighting a losing battle.

"This is a very emotional topic," he said. "It's motherhood and apple pie. And politicians in an election year won't touch this thing with a 10-foot pole."