VIRGINIA LAWMAKERS, in thrall to special interests, are asking voters to approve a state constitutional amendment that would cost state and local governments and taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually in giveaways to private landowners and businesses. This staggering act of corporate welfare — as proposed in Question 1 on the ballot Virginia voters will cast Nov. 6 — would go far beyond current law in any other state. Virginians should vote no on Question 1.
The issue involves how much is owed in compensation to landowners — especially corporations, business owners or farmers — whose property is taken or adversely affected by the government in the course of building roads, power lines, sewers or other public projects.
Government at all levels engages in the seizure of private property under the power of eminent domain. The general practice has been for governments to compensate owners by paying them fair market value for such property. So far, so good.
Following a controversial Supreme Court decision in 2005 that granted local officials broad latitude to seize private property for economic development, there was pushback from property rights advocates and conservatives. In more than 40 states, including Virginia, they enacted laws tightening the rules governing property seizures. A handful of states went even further, electing to compensate owners whose property is seized (especially when it’s their principal residence) by paying them 125 percent, 150 percent or, in the case of Kansas, 200 percent of the property’s value.
Virginia would go way beyond that if Question 1 is approved. In addition to making owners whole by paying them the market value of seized property, the state would also compensate them for “lost profit” and “lost access.” In other words, the sky’s the limit.
No state has adopted such a law, let alone a constitutional amendment, that would shower so much money on property owners. It would even apply to those who are eager to sell or who might benefit from their inconvenience in the long run — for example, following the construction of a new road or transit station that temporarily impedes access to a business.
In the event that Question 1 passes at referendum, state lawmakers have decreed that business owners would be entitled to receive government payments equivalent to their most recent three years of profits.
Conservatives such as Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II, have pushed Question 1, portraying it as a safeguard against government abuse. In fact, the existing law in Virginia, enacted just five years ago, already does that. If Question 1 is approved, the real losers would be taxpayers who would subsidize state-guaranteed profits, and local governments — read: more taxpayers — for whom the cost of projects like new roads and utilities would skyrocket.