Eminent domain is the power of the government to take private property from a landowner for public use. When their land is taken by eminent domain condemnation proceedings, a landowner must be fairly compensated. In Texas, the power of eminent domain is extended to certain private for-profit entities including gas and electric corporations and common carrier pipelines.
Hopes of reform were dashed last week when the clock ran out on negotiations in a conference committee.
SB 421, filed by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), would have strengthened the position of landowners when their property was subject to eminent domain condemnation proceedings. This issue has long been a top priority for Sen. Kolkhorst – the first bill she filed as a state senator was on this topic, and she has continued to file similar legislation in each legislative session since.
This session was the closest she has come to having her bill sent to the Governor’s desk for a signature.
The bill targeted private companies possessing eminent domain authority. SB 421 would have required meetings designed to ensure property owners understand the process and have an opportunity to have their questions answered. It also would have required condemned land to be restored to as close to its original condition as possible, if, for example, a pipeline was put on the property.
Additionally, it would have protected landowners from low-ball compensation offers made by companies. The bill would have required additional damages be awarded to a landowner if the offer is shown to have been at least 25 percent less than the valuation of the property.
A bipartisan majority of the Senate passed SB 421 at the beginning of April by a vote of 28-3, sending it to the House for consideration. It was then referred to the House Land & Resources Management Committee chaired by Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland).
Once in his committee, Rep. Craddick took over sponsorship of the bill from its original House sponsor, Rep. DeWayne Burns (R-Cleburne), who had originally filed companion legislation in the House.
The House Committee worked on a committee substitute that watered down key provisions that would have protected landowners such as requiring the land taken for installation of a pipeline be returned to its original state after the installation, and providing for additional compensation for failure to do so.
Other provisions removed by Craddick included the requirement that an offer made by a company with eminent domain authority be in writing and allow the landowner at least 14 days to respond to the offer, as well as requirements that would have required the entity to provide very detailed information to the landowner before condemnation proceedings could begin.
Sen. Kolkhorst said that Rep. Craddick, “Severely weakened SB 421 to the benefit of condemning authorities.” She continued, “The language in the House Version would have turned back the clock for landowners and greatly harmed them.”
When SB 421 passed the House on May 22, the Senate refused to concur on the changes, instead sending the bill to a conference committee.
When it appointed conference committee members, the House passed a motion instructing the conference committee to include the provisions of the Senate version in the conference committee report, an instruction that Sen. Kolkhorst said was, “ignored” by Rep. Craddick in negotiations.
The bill died when the conference committee could not agree on a compromise before the end-of-session deadline.
Rep. Craddick defended the House version of the bill saying that it, “Corrected shortcomings in the Senate Version” and blamed Sen. Kolkorst for the bill dying this session, saying that her office “made no effort to meet with me since the bill left the house, until after the deadline.”
Rep Craddick’s statement concluded “I had high hopes for all parties – landowners, business and government – to rewrite eminent domain legislation this session. Unfortunately, this did not occur. I will add existing law is far preferable to a version that simply enriched attorneys and stifled much-needed infrastructure developments across Texas.”
Sen. Kolkhorst indicated that she will continue working on this issue in the next session saying, “There is a balance that must be struck that allows industry to flourish while respecting the basic rights of property owners. This issue will and must remain a top state legislative priority.”
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Katie Fisher is a licensed attorney and writer with a broad range of political, private sector, and ministry experience. A California transplant, Katie earned her J.D. at the age of 21 from Oak Brook College of Law, subsequently passing the bar exam and going into private law practice. Texas became home when she moved to Houston to serve as the Deputy Director of Delegate Operations for the 2016 Cruz for President campaign. She currently resides in the Austin area with her husband and daughter.