Friday morning, the House committee on Privileges and Elections will take up a series of constitutional amendments that would further strengthen Virginia’s existing property rights protections. And that has brought the condemnor lobby out in force.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision, Virginia, like other states, began crafting bills to ensure that private property couldn’t be seized willy-nilly. A strong statute, backed by then-Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, managed to become law in 2007. Supporters, though, had originally hoped for a constitutional amendment, reasoning that a mere statute was too easy for local governments, utilities and other entities with muscular lobbying shops and deep pockets could easily punch holes in the law.
So in 2009, property rights advocates, led by Sen. Mark Obenshain, tried the amendment route again, only to run into a buzz saw of realtors, local governments, housing authorities, retail merchants, phone companies and many others who argued that it was just too soon to embrace a constitutional amendment when the statute was still so new.
The Democrat-controlled Senate bought the argument and the amendment died.
Will property rights proponents find luck in their third try? Early indications are that Democratic opposition to the idea remains solid. In a House subcommittee vote earlier this week on one version of a property rights amendment, the vote was 3-2 – Republicans for, Democrats against.
Based solely on the House’s partisan make-up, it’s likely the amendment will survive the full committee and win approval on the House floor. Even so, the condemnor lobby is fighting the measure at each step. As my friend Steve Rossie noted, “No less than 10 government and corporations testified against the resolution in sub-committee…”
That’s quite a forceful showing for a subcommittee meeting. And it shows how seriously the condemnors take the threat of a constitutional amendment that would limit their ability to seize private property.
They aren’t likely to gain much traction in the House, but that’s only true if Republicans stick together on the matter. The real problem will, again, be in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where majority leader Dick Saslaw famously said during the first debate on a property rights amendment in 2007, “there’s simply no need to put this in the constitution.”
It’s highly doubtful Mr. Saslaw has changed his mind since then and it’s even more doubtful that the members of the Senate’s Privileges and Elections committee – which killed the second try at an amendment on an 8-7 party-line vote in 2009 – has changed its thinking, either.
But they should. This is an election year for all 140 members of the General Assembly. Do Democrats want to go before voters and say they are against protecting the property rights of average Virginians? Stay tuned….