The Iowa General Assembly today took the historic step of overriding Governor Vilsack’s veto of property rights legislation, the first time in more than 40 years that state lawmakers have trumped a governor’s veto. At 11:45 this morning, the House voted 90 to eight to override the veto. At three o’clock this afternoon, the Senate followed suit, voting 41 to eight to override.
Representative Jeff Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton, says legislators listened to Iowans concerned about cities and counties condemning land for economic development projects. “I’ve heard people say we need another tool in the economic development tool box,” Kaufmann says. “Eminent domain being used as a tool in the economic development tool box is like going duck hunting with a bazooka. You might get the job done but it’s not right. It’s not fair and it’s not Iowa.”
The galleries overlooking the House and Senate were crowded with Iowans who have been fighting by the power cities and counties have to condemn property for public projects. Representative Ed Fallon, a Democrat from Des Moines who ran for governor, says too many cities and counties have used that power to “bully” too many Iowans. “Yes, I know this was brought up in response to the federal decision on (the) Kelo (case), but brewing in the background for a lot of years have been these other issues,” Fallon said. “Perhaps they needed the spark that Kelo provided to get a fair hearing here.”
Representative Phil Wise, a Democrat from Keokuk, said the bill was drafted over a period of months and Governor Vilsack should have brought his concerns about the bill to lawmakers earlier this spring when the legislature was in session. “I profoundly wish that the governor had raised the objections that he raised in his veto message sometime between the middle of February and the beginning of May rather than after we had adjourned for the year,” Wise said.
Vilsack vetoed the bill on June 2nd. “I regret that the executive waited ’til after-the-fact to raise his objections because I believe, number one, they probably would have been addressed,” Wise said. “Secondly, I believe some of the governor’s objections are valid — not all of them — but some of them are valid.”
The governor has suggested that because of a parliamentary technicality, the override might not be legal and a challenge is likely to be made in court. Representative Danny Carroll, a Republican from Grinnell, believes “no court in the land” would rule against legislators. “If a governor can veto, then a legislature can override,” Carroll says. “It’s as simple as that.”
But Representative Walt Tomenga, a Republican from Johnston, warned there’ll be unintended consequences if the bill does become law. For instance, Tomenga believes taxpayers will wind up paying more because governments will have to pay more for land acquired for lakes and other public projects. “I believe that eminent domain is an important part, an important tool in our democracy,” Tomenga said. “It states basically that the good of the majority at times and for necessary reasons need to prevail over the rights of the minority.”
House Republican Leader Chuck Gipp of Decorah closed out the House debate by reading a statement. “We are here today to reestablish the confidence in the owning of private property and (protect) the private property ownership rights of Iowans,” Gipp said.
Senator Keith Kreiman, a Democrat from Bloomfield, opened Senate debate by disagreeing with the governor’s contention that the bill will harm job creation efforts or restricts the ability of cities to clean up slums. “I join most Iowans, Democrats and Republicans, in believing that this bill better protects residential and small business property owners from unfair and unjust uses of the eminent domain law,” Kreiman said.
But a few senators, like Jack Hatch — a Democrat from Des Moines, warned the bill will impose major roadblocks for cities trying to clean-up slums and entice businesses to build new headquarters in city centers rather in the suburbs. “The city had a tool, a tool that you’ve taken away,” Hatch said. “This bill will encourage urban sprawl because corporations will no longer find it easier to come here and build in the city…to build vertically. It’s a lot easier for these corporations…to build on a (farm).”
But Hatch was in the minority. Senator David Miller, a Republican from Fairfield, said the bill would protect property owners who’re being intimidated by city or county governments into giving up their land for some project, like a lake. “We can talk about statistics, but if you’re a statistic, if you’re one that’s going to lose your farm, your home or whatever because government just doesn’t want to look at other options or work with people, then this is what this is all about,” Miller said.
Senator Stewart Iverson, a Republican from Dows, said owning property is a basic American right, and government should be limited in its authority to seize private property for economic development projects. “Taking your property away from you to give to somebody else because…they’ll build a better building is just wrong,” Iverson said.
Opponents of the override in the senate, like Bill Dotzler — a Democrat from Waterloo, warned the legislature’s action will be challenged in court. “You are going to have a hollow victory today because this thing is going to end up in the courts and get twisted around,” Dotzler said.
Senator Bob Brunkhorst, a Republican from Waverly, responded. “We should be proud today. We’re protecting private property rights,” Brunkhorst said. “There is no hollow victory. This is a dang good bill.”
Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs agreed that the matter’s going to court, yet he voted to override the governor’s veto. “I have real concerns about local governments taking away private property from one individual and giving it to another individual for a private purpose,” Gronstal said. “I think those are very, very important concerns.”
Governor Tom Vilsack has not ruled out going to court to challenge the legislature’s action. “Many of us will have to take a step back and consider what actions we’re going to take,” Vilsack told reporters Friday morning.
The last time the Iowa Legislature voted to override a governor’s veto was in 1963. Harold Hughes was governor and the issue was about the balance of power in state government.