While national attention focused on the defeat of the "personhood" initiative in Mississippi on Tuesday, voters there approved Initiative 31, an amendment to the state constitution that bans the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another (h/t Jim Roos, Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition) with 73% of the vote.
Eminent domain, where government takes private property for public use, is regulated by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which says, "...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The issue of what constitutes a "public use" has been expanded by court decisions over several decades, with the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London that economic development qualifies as a public use, even when the property is being transferred to a different private owner.
Eminent domain is heavily entwined with economic development subsidies, in particular tax increment financing. Removing "blight" is often a reason a government can resort to eminent domain, and some variant of blight must be shown in most states to allow the use of tax increment financing. I argued in Competing for Capital that fighting subsidies often attracts "strange bedfellows" coalitions, because they can be criticized on efficiency, equity, and environmental grounds, potentially pulling opponents to subsidies from across the ideological spectrum.
For similar reasons, we see unusual political coalitions fighting private-to-private eminent domain. For one thing, these cases usually involve subsidies, as did Kelo. People understandably don't want to lose their homes, but they are especially incensed if they are losing their homes to enrich a company or private developer. Moreover, such cases can heavily impact minority communities (if property values are lower there) and small businesses (especially if compensation only takes property value into account, but not the value of the ongoing business). In Mississippi, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Federation of Independent Businesses filed a joint amicus brief with the state supreme court to keep Initiative 31 on the ballot, represented by the libertarian Institute for Justice. Talk about strange bedfellows!
This coalition can break down, however. As Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy points out, when eminent domain reform is paired with other measures, it often fails. He gives the examples of Proposition 98 in California, which included rent control restrictions, and Proposition 90, which included "regulatory takings" provisions (these limit government ability to adopt new regulations). Understandably, those additions saw off the liberal wing of the eminent domain reform coalition. "By contrast," he says, "all twelve 'clean' anti-Kelo measures have passed, usually by lopsided margins..." The Institute for Justice, however, does push "regulatory takings" provisions. To its credit, it did not demand them as a price for defending Initiative 31 in court.
With the passing of Initiative 31, Mississippi has given subsidy opponents leverage as well as protecting property owners from having to transfer their property to private developers, which often translates into an additional subsidy.