The Missouri General Assembly opens its 93rd session today at noon, and noteworthy proposals on a wide range of issues are ready to be debated.
In particular, eminent domain and stem cell research seem poised to evoke strong feelings and heated discussion among lawmakers. Will Missouri commandeer private land to raise tax revenue? Will Missouri harvest embryonic clones for stem cells? At least 11 bills and constitutional amendments on these two issues alone are primed for deliberation, with more initiatives likely to be added before the session ends in May.
Here is an introduction to the issues and a brief summary of the legislative proposals that have been filed so far.
“Eminent domain” is government acquisition of private property for public use. Although it is not a power explicitly granted by federal or state constitutions, lawmakers have long agreed that authority to exercise eminent domain is inherent to government. The most conflict-ridden features of the process are found in the definition of “public use” and the compensation offered to property owners.
“Public use” is not specifically defined in federal or state constitutions, though the assumption has been that taxpayers, rather than private parties, should benefit from eminent domain; highways and public buildings are traditional examples.
However, more recently, governments have agreed to seize property on behalf of private entities for purposes of economic development. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision by the city government of New London, Conn., to turn over an entire neighborhood to a private developer. While the court’s opinion outraged property rights advocates, the justices also held that states can develop their own rules on eminent domain.
That’s just what Missouri lawmakers propose to do.
A task force created by Gov. Matt Blunt recommended that the use of eminent domain solely to generate more tax revenues be prohibited and that a property be deemed “blighted” before eminent domain may be exercised. The task force recommends judicial review of future legislation that defines blight.
The Missouri General Assembly will review the task force’s suggestions and consider proposed legislation. SB 611, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, would require the government or condemning entity to notify landholders of their rights, including the right to a hearing, the right to appeal and the right of property owners to select their own appraisers. But Engler, who says most people oppose unrestricted eminent domain, also filed two proposed constitutional amendments that would effectively limit eminent domain to the taking of private property by public agencies for noneconomic purposes. Engler hopes to see his proposed amendments on the ballot in August or November. He said he expects a fight.
“It’ll be more urban versus rural than Democrat versus Republican because people in the country value property rights more,” Engler said.
Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, wants a more specific definition for “blighted area.” SB 560 would also restrict eminent domain for economic development to land that has been transferred to public ownership and to private entities involved in public projects or that propose to eliminate blight. The bill characterizes blight as areas of high unemployment, low income and low fiscal capacity. The bill would also guarantee certain rights of due process to affected landowners.
In the Missouri House, both Reps. Mark Wright, R-Springfield, and Wayne Henke, D-Troy, have proposed constitutional amendments that prohibit eminent domain for private use, with or without compensation to the owners of the condemned entity.
“I object to taking 10 houses from people to make a big-box store just because the store will generate more tax revenue,” Henke said. “If it’s for the good of all, that’s great. If it’s for the good of a few, that’s wrong.”
Henke’s amendment would prohibit agricultural and horticultural land from being defined as blighted. Wright’s amendment would give the displaced landowner the right of first refusal if the condemning entity decides to sell the property. Both amendments would restrict “public use” to the activities of state entities, public agencies and utilities.
At the center of the stem-cell debate in Missouri is somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is used to clone human embryos that are then harvested for stem cells in their earliest stage of development. SCNT appears to hold greater promise than the use of umbilical or adult stem cells.
Stem cells may be grown into any type of cell, and thus can serve as a model replacement for damaged human tissue. But because stem-cell research is simultaneously a moral, scientific and political issue, some lawmakers fear the General Assembly will try to squelch a debate as they did last year. Gov. Blunt says he supports stem cell research, but his constituency is deeply divided on the matter.
“None of the cloning or stem cell bills offered last session even got a hearing, let alone a vote,” said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D- Barnhart.
Lawmakers have prefiled several bills reflecting the full spectrum of opinion on stem-cell research, but the passage of any new legislation may be moot: If the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, which calls for a constitutional amendment to permit stem cell research, generates 150,000 petition signatures by May 9, the issue will be put to voters in November.
Sen. Chuck Graham, D- Columbia, said many lawmakers “want to bring their ideas forward, filing them so particular interest groups understand where they are on the issue, knowing there likely won’t be any votes.”
Graham is proposing a constitutional amendment that mirrors the Research and Cures Initiative. The amendment would prohibit local governments from hampering stem cell research, for example denying public funding, that is otherwise legal under federal law. Graham said his proposed amendment would be less expensive and more flexible than the public initiative, which could not be changed once the signatures are gathered.
Missouri currently allows state funding of stem cell research, but a bipartisan group of six state representatives, including Rep. Belinda Harris, D- Hillsboro, is sponsoring a bill that bans the use of state money for human embryonic stem cell research.
Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, has introduced a bill that would permit private and public stem cell research to be conducted with private or state funds.
Sen. Matt Bartle, R- Lee’s Summit, was at the center of last year’s debate when he introduced a bill that would have banned SCNT. This year Bartle is proposing to channel a quarter of future revenue from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement toward projects involving stem cells taken from non-embryonic and non-fetal sources only. SB 774 would also earmark 25 percent of the diverted funds to establish umbilical cord blood banks, with the rest going to research into existing adult stem cell lines.
Roorda is sponsoring a bill that would ban human cloning. HB 1042 would create the Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer Technology Commission to examine the issue and make recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly within one year. A moratorium on SCNT would be imposed until the commission reports.
“We’re not even completely sure about the healing potential of this technology over adult stem cell lines,” Roorda said. “The pro-life and pro-choice camps have dug their heels on this issue, but my bill is a thoughtful way to at least get some discussion going.”