House Republicans moved ahead Wednesday with what's been popular bipartisan legislation in the chamber in recent years to make clear North Carolina governments can't condemn somebody's property solely for private economic development.
The House Judiciary Committee recommended a proposed constitutional amendment that is partially in response to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The bill, which now goes to the full House for an expected Thursday vote, would enshrine in the state constitution certain protections for landowners if approved by voters statewide in a November 2012 ballot.
Similar proposals have cleared the House in 2007 and 2010 with at least 100 votes of support in the 120-member chamber but died in the Senate. Chances for full passage are higher now that the Senate has a Republican majority. The GOP made passing the eminent domain amendment a part of its campaign platform.
"This is not a radical bill. It's only getting us to where the vast majority of us thought the law was to start with," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake. "
The proposed amendment would let North Carolina voters decide whether to add language to the state constitution to bar condemnation of private property by state or local governments except for a "public use." That could include highways, railroads or natural gas pipelines.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Connecticut town's decision to condemn waterfront homes for private developers. The North Carolina Legislature changed laws the following year to change state laws that allowed local governments to condemn land for similar purposes, but Stam and others don't believe it went far enough.
Stam said other sections of the bill would make clear land acquisitions for a broader "public benefit" are unlawful.
Some Democrats on the committee tried to delay the bill's passage, saying they wanted more information on what kind of future capital projects could be restricted if the amendment were to become law, such as mass transit or natural gas lines to private companies.
"Sometimes when you change things in the constitution, you just don't know what you're doing," said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange. "When you do pass a constitutional amendment, you open it up to a new round of constitutional interpretation."
The constitutional amendment also would guarantee the right of someone whose land is condemned to receive a jury trial to determine just compensation from the government if the person asks for it. North Carolina is the only state without this right, Stam said.
The amendment is the latest being considered by the Republican-led Legislature this year, including measures that would limit the leadership of House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to four years and to make it harder to keep public records secret and government meetings closed. An amendment that would bar gay marriage also could be considered by next year.
Three-fifths of the House and Senate members must approve a proposal to get it on the ballot.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said this week he didn't know how many amendments should be on any ballot. He said some ideas like eminent domain are pretty straightforward but others would take a lot of time and energy to educate the public on the issue. Some ideas are better served in regular state law, which can be changed more easily by future legislator.
"Just because it's good law doesn't mean it should be in the constitution," Tillis said.