Institute for Justice Texas Chapter Issues Report Card on Eminent Domain Reform Legislation

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · March 31, 2009

Austin, Texas—How good are the different eminent domain reforms currently being considered in the Texas Legislature?  The Institute for Justice Texas Chapter (IJ-TX) today issued a Mid-Term Report Card on various legislative proposals designed to address the ongoing problem of eminent domain abuse (eminent domain for private development) in the Lone Star State.

Matt Miller, executive director of the Austin-based IJ-TX, said, “Some proposals that may look good are actually riddled with loopholes that local officials can easily exploit.  But there are several strong proposals on the table right now.  We want to highlight those proposals because they will have a very positive impact on Texans who are battling eminent domain abuse today.”

The Institute for Justice Texas Chapter gave HJR 14 a grade of A-plus.  Miller said, “This proposed constitutional amendment offers an excellent definition of ‘public use’ that would stop eminent domain for private gain.”  HJR 14 creates a constitutional amendment that Texans should have a chance to vote on in November.

Miller said, “We give HB 1483/SB 18 a grade of A.  This is a very strong bill that, if coupled with HJR 14, would give Texans some of the strongest property rights protection in the nation.”

HB 417 also earned a grade of A.  Miller said, “This bill addresses municipal abuse of ‘blight’ as a pretext—or basically a ruse—for using eminent domain.  Cities often declare perfectly fine properties ‘blighted’ just so they can hand the land over to a private developer for private use.  This is a critical piece of legislation to address bogus blight designations, like in El Paso.”

Miller said HB 4 is a strong bill that earns an A-minus grade after an amendment added the all-important definition of public use.  He said this bill could be improved by strengthening buy-back provisions to mirror HB 1483.  A buy-back provision allows property owners to buy their land back if it isn’t put to use after a certain amount of time.

SB 533, which was designed by its author to make condemnations fairer, earned a grade of C because, although it contains some useful procedural fixes, ultimately it will prove ineffective without the amendment from HB 4 that includes a strong definition of public use.

HJR 31, a different proposed constitutional amendment, earned a C-minus because although this bill would allow voters to send a message to elected officials, eminent domain abuse would continue because of unintended loopholes.

Because SJR 42, which has not yet been referred to committee, is among the weakest proposals so far, it earned a grade of D-minus.  It disallows takings whose “primary purpose” is “economic development,” but does not define those terms, and allows eminent domain abuse for any other purpose.  This language needs significant revision to effectively address eminent domain for private gain.

Miller said, “Texas is at the tipping point on eminent domain reform.  There are several great bills pending in committee that would give Texans the property protection they demand.  The Institute for Justice has demonstrated through its research that Texas can have strong property rights and a strong economy, too; they aren’t mutually exclusive.  Texas should join the states that have adopted strong reforms and take its place as a national leader in the area of property rights.  Our citizens deserve nothing less.”

In total, here are the pieces of proposed eminent domain reform legislation and their grades from the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter: