Mississippi Again



Editor’s Comment

by Maggie Neff
April 1, 2009

During trips to my mother’s hometown of Oxford, it was customary for her to point out the areas of land, now heavily developed, that blacks owned when she was growing up. The long stretch of kudzu-entangled land along Highway 6 between Oxford “city” and Oxford “country,” as I called them, once belonged to her neighbors or people whose kids walked to the one-room schoolhouse down the road with my mom as children. There’s one particular area along the highway leading up to my Great Aunt Bee’s home that she talked about every time we passed it.

“All this,” she would say waving her arm from one end of the car to the other, “all this belonged to a woman who lived just down the road from us.”

After the woman died, her children sold the land for ridiculously less money than it was worth, and my mother silently chastised them as she shook her head with remorse. It was a trend, it seemed: poor blacks being swindled out of their land by smooth-talking, affluent land developers offering a fraction of the land’s worth. Back then, many didn’t know any better, or they didn’t have the resources to assess the value of their land themselves. Whatever the case, though, one party prospered while the other suffered a great loss.

These days, the government has taken over the job of procuring land for corporations and developers, and they don’t really give landowners an option in the matter.

Section 11-27-1 of Mississippi Code states: “Any person or corporation having the right to condemn private property for public use shall exercise that right as provided in this chapter, except as elsewhere specifically provided under the laws of the state of Mississippi.” The major problem with this qualifier for exercising eminent domain is that it includes “corporations.” Why do corporations need governmental power to take someone’s land? And what “public use” can a corporation offer that justifies taking people’s homes?

Over the years, many have used the phrase “public use” in this clause to justify taking—practically stealing—land from Mississippi residents, touting that new development will “create jobs.” That may be the case, but if you’ve lost your home—the one that’s been in your family for generations—what consolation is that?

In 2000, the state Legislature brokered a deal with Nissan to bring a new auto plant to Canton. Not only did the state offer them almost $300 million in tax exemptions and breaks, but in 2001, the state also exercised its right of eminent domain. Many Mississippians lost their homes in exchange for “fair” compensation, but some fought it. Lonzo Archie, whose family owned 25 acres in Madison County, stood up and said, “no.” And what did the state do? Sue the family, of course. Eventually, the Archie family won the right to keep their own land, and the Nissan plant redesigned the plant around their property; but what happens when the Toyota plant begins construction in Blue Springs?

Will we relive the nightmare?

Too often, eminent domain is the tool by which local government leaders entice large corporations into a poor community that, yes, needs jobs, but also are vulnerable to low wages and unfair representation. Let’s face it, Mississippi is a dream state for bottom-line-thinking corporations who want to keep labor costs down. And because the government sure as hell isn’t supporting the unions, you can almost guarantee that they can get away with things otherwise impossible in other areas of the country. This is certainly not to say that Nissan or all other corporations find this acceptable, but in today’s society, it happens.

In the 2009 legislative session, the House and Senate passed House Bill 803, which would limit the exercise of eminent domain. “[T]he right of eminent domain shall not be exercised for the purpose of taking or damaging privately owned real property for private development or a private purpose; or for enhancement of tax revenue; or for transfer to a person, nongovernmental entity, public-private partnership, corporation or other business entity,” the bill stated.

This was a huge step in moving closer to a more just system of deciding who is lucky enough to keep their home and who isn’t. Last month, however, Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed that bill, saying that it would “hurt job creation” and stifle “economic development.”

“If a legislator wants to hurt job creation in Mississippi during this recession and forever after, a vote to override this veto is the best way to achieve that terrible outcome,” Barbour stated in a release after vetoing the legislation. He also suggested that the legislation was unconstitutional. (Hmm. Unconstitutional to protect a citizen’s right to own property?)

Barbour has a corporate mind-set; after all, he’s a former corporate lobbyist. But what is perhaps more sad is that he was able to convince the Senate not to override his veto with this argument.

Eminent-domain restrictions don’t hurt job creation. Corporations have many other incentives to locate their properties in Mississippi, many of which I stated earlier. And don’t forget about the exorbitant tax exemptions the state offers. If corporations are interested in acquiring land, they can also negotiate with landowners—compromise; it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation. The government shouldn’t be the beginning and final say on the matter. The government should be the least involved in the process, in fact.

Corporations need to make up their minds, as do the conservatives who so strongly oppose government regulation. The idea of free enterprise—which is so many anti-regulation folks’ argument against bailouts and stimulus plans—exists independently of government involvement. This extends to the exercise of eminent domain for what essentially boils down to private, corporate use. You can’t have it both ways. It seems that Barbour and other conservatives only favor government involvement when it benefits them. And that’s not fair to the people of Mississippi, or anywhere else, for that matter.

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