As we wrap up another round of the Texas Legislature, I can’t help but think of another lost opportunity. This session began with great optimism, as they always do, but in the end, the same old question arises; why did I bother? Why do I continue to let myself be optimistic, only to be disappointed session after session? Maybe the disappointment will wear off by the time the 86th Legislature rolls around, but right now, it seems hopeless.
A property rights group made a huge push for real eminent domain reform, something that is long overdue in Texas. There was some legislation introduced that would have went a long way in leveling the playing field for property owners dealing with condemnation. This legislation which was authored by Senator Lois Kolkhorst would have put some significant controls on the information pipeline companies would have had to provide property owners, while also requiring the condemning authority to pay for legal fees of the victim if they submit a low offer for the property. It initially appeared that this legislation was going to go somewhere, then politics got involved.
The real teeth in this legislation was with the requirement for the condemner to pay the legal fees of the victims, if the final judgment was 20% higher than the initial offer. This was meant to prevent low initial offers. A study was completed with the assistance of the League of Independent Voters of Texas on the last 23 condemnation cases from the State of Texas. The cases are from around the entire state, from Houston to Lubbock to Fort Worth. What this study highlighted, was that in instances where the victim disputed the initial offer, the average initial offer was 41% of the final offer, and the final settlement was on average 126% higher than the initial offer. So clearly this type of legislation was needed to provide relief to Texas landowners.
The hearings for some of these bills went really well, with passionate property owners who had their lives turned upside down by having their land condemned. Of course the same old critics of any kind of eminent domain reform were also present. These critics of course are the ones who benefit with the current way of doing business. There were lies told of how this would increase litigation, and drive the costs up for public projects, which admits that landowners are being under paid for their property through eminent domain. In the end these lies won, the legislators were fooled and nothing was accomplished.
While sitting through hours and hours of testimony, it was clear that not all of the legislators were attentive to the testimony, while a few asked question and seem genuinely interested, others either were not really interested, or had no clue what the witness was talking about. There was absolutely no empathy from the legislators for the victims of the horrific crime of taking someone’s property. In some cases, the lights were on, but nobody was home.
I wonder how long we will continue down the path to nowhere. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Maybe it is time that we consider voting for someone who is not burdened by a particular party, someone who can have an independent thought, without the party giving it to them. This session showed me more than ever, why we need a group like the League of Independent Voters of Texas. Without a strong third party, and independent thinking, there is little incentive for those legislators to care about whose property is being taken by who.