Texas Senate Guts Property Rights Legislation

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 5, 2009

Austin, Tx.—The Institute for Justice Texas Chapter issued a warning today to property owners across Texas:  despite politicians’ claims to the contrary, Senate Bill 18, which passed through the Texas Senate yesterday, will not end eminent domain abuse in Texas.  The Institute litigated the infamous Kelo eminent domain case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and its Austin-based Texas Chapter has led the way to eminent domain reform in the Lone Star State.

“As it stands, SB 18 represents a bait and switch on Texas property owners,” said Matt Miller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter (IJ-TX).  “This bill helps protect rural property owners but leaves urban and suburban property owners exposed to private development schemes.”  The definition of “public use”—which was the entire focus of the Kelo litigation—was stripped from the bill in committee.  All that’s left is a collection of procedural safeguards.  Although helpful, those provisions do not address the central problem of Kelo.

Property owners across Texas should be worried about SB 18’s momentum because more meaningful bills are now being stalled by legislative leaders.  Property owners from Houston, El Paso and San Antonio, all of whom are today being threatened by eminent domain abuse, rallied at the Capitol in March.  They were met with assurances that this session Texas would finally address Kelo once and for all.

“The Governor opened this session saying he wanted a constitutional amendment to address Kelo,” said IJ-TX Staff Attorney Wesley Hottot.  “Now, with mere weeks left in the session, time is running out for the legislature and Governor Perry to make good on their promises.”

With SB 18 gutted, Texas property owners must pin their hopes on two bills in the House.  The first is a strong constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 14, by Frank Corte (R-San Antonio), which offers Texans the strongest protection for their homes and businesses.  The second is House Bill 417, by Bill Callegari (R-Katy), a bill that would address the problem of cities using bogus “blight” designations to justify eminent domain for private development.  Both bills are out of committee, but have yet be scheduled for a vote.

“Texas property owners should have the opportunity to curb eminent domain abuse through their Bill of Rights, and Rep. Corte’s constitutional amendment does just that,” said Miller.  “Combined with HB 417, HJR 14 would give Texans some of the strongest property rights in the nation.  Chairman Dennis Bonnen did what he said he would and got those bills out of his House committee.  Now it is up to the Calendars Committee, the Senate and Governor Perry to follow through.”

“If SB18 passes but HJR 14 and HB 417 do not pass, this legislative session will be a failure for anyone who owns a piece of property in Texas,” said Hottot.  “People need to pay attention right now and demand passage of the real reform measures, otherwise we will once again be denied the protection we were promised.  This legislative session is starting to look like a repeat of 2005 and 2007 when genuine property rights protection was promised by Texas political leaders, but never delivered.”