Reform Government’s Claim on Your Domain

Pennsylvanians never really own their homes—they only “rent” them from the government.

Don’t believe me? Just stop paying your school and county property taxes and you’ll find out who actually owns the title to your house.

But the situation just got worse in the commonwealth. Now your home, small business, church or other property is in even greater jeopardy of being taken by government—-even if you faithfully pay those ever-increasing taxes.

In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Kelo v. New London case that governments at all levels can seize your private property to increase tax revenues or benefit other private interests without violating the U.S. Constitution. This represents a sad and troubling expansion of the constitutional use of eminent domain, which has historically been used for public projects such as highways, schools, roads and other projects with clear public purposes—not private interests or simply to increase government’s tax revenues.

The effect of this recent decision is that what was once considered abuse and misuse of eminent domain powers now has the High Court’s blessing. In essence, the “takings” clauses of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Sec. 10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution are no longer sufficient in stopping governments from taking private property for whatever purpose they deem necessary.

State legislatures across America have reacted strongly following the Supreme Court’s decision. To date, at least 17 states are attempting to pass legislation to prevent the potential land grabs authorized by the Court’s ruling. In early August, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley signed the first of this type of protective measure into law. The Alabama law prevents cities and counties in that state from using eminent domain for private development or simply enhancing government’s tax revenues.

The good news in Harrisburg is that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of the General Assembly are seeking to curb the kind of eminent domain abuse in Pennsylvania that the U.S. Supreme Court recently blessed. But it won’t be easy. Governments, government agencies, and their subsidiaries rarely give up power without a fight. Indeed, when Democratic State Rep. Tom Yewcic submitted bills to limit eminent domain abuse, attorneys for government development agencies in his own region were quick to defend their ability to take private property.

In testimony before the House State Government Committee in early August, York Mayor John Brenner argued against Yewcic’s legislation, pointing to his successful takings of blighted property in his city for “the public good.” But, as Barry Goldwater reminded us years ago, a government that is big enough to give us everything we want is also big enough to take everything we have.

While most people recognize eminent domain can play a role in reviving our abandoned urban centers, it is certainly not in the best interest of citizens’ inalienable rights to life, liberty and property to empower governments in the manner the U.S. Supreme Court did via the Kelo decision. Indeed, the balance of power must be re-tipped heavily in favor of citizens, not governments or government agencies.

Throughout Pennsylvania, battles are being waged between citizens and government. In York County, homebuilder Peter Alecxih is in a fight to keep his business alive because some folks are using eminent domain to take his property to put it to uses they deem better.

In Dauphin County, businessman Stan Cramer is fighting the Harrisburg International Airport’s use of eminent domain to seize his family’s parking lot business. Fortunately for Mr. Cramer, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett may be coming to his rescue. Corbett recently filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the government authority for trying to put out of business the airport’s only parking lot competition.

Although Mr. Cramer may finally get the help he needs to keep his business from being taken through eminent domain, most Pennsylvanians forced to deal with abusive governments will not get the assistance of Pennsylvania’s top government lawyer.

Therefore, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s blessing for governments to abuse and misuse eminent domain, it is now up to Harrisburg policymakers to severely curtail these un-American private property takings in Pennsylvania. Reforming eminent domain is not about eliminating this governmental power, but limiting it to its proper and intended use.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a public policy research and educational institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.