By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
BILOXI (AP) — Four candidates for Mississippi governor say they support an initiative on this November’s ballot to block state and local governments from taking private land for private economic development projects.
Republicans Phil Bryant and Dave Dennis and Democrats Johnny DuPree and Bill Luckett spoke about limiting eminent domain Friday during a forum at the Mississippi Press Association convention in Biloxi.
Each said property owners should be fairly compensated if a developer wants to buy land for a private project.
“I’m a believer that if you own something and it’s not going to be taken for public good, then it shouldn’t be taken from you,” said Luckett, a Clarksdale businessman and attorney who said he has represented private citizens and state government in eminent domain cases for public projects.
“Just to build another supercenter or something like that, to take away somebody’s land, in my view is just not right.”
DuPree, who’s been Hattiesburg mayor the past decade, said he agrees with Luckett.
“Eminent domain, I think, should be left for public use and not for private use,” DuPree said.
Dennis, a construction executive from Pass Christian, said he and his wife have lost two parcels of land to eminent domain, but in each case it was for a public project such as road construction. Speaking of private developers seeking land, Dennis said: “If they want it that bad, they should let their assets chase it.”
Bryant, the current lieutenant governor, said when he talks to business people about the possibility of bringing big projects to Mississippi, he has been asked about taxes and environmental regulation but never about eminent domain.
“’Life, liberty and the pursuit of property,’ I believe, was the first draft Jefferson had, and I believe in that,” Bryant said.
The candidates’ positions on limiting governments’ ability to take land puts them at odds with two-term Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who couldn’t seek re-election this year. Barbour has vetoed eminent domain restrictions because he believes they could hurt Mississippi’s ability to attract big projects such as auto manufacturing plants.
Nearly 120,000 people signed petitions to put the eminent domain restrictions on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. Jackson businessman Leland Speed, appointed by Barbour as head of the state economic development agency, filed a lawsuit in early June seeking to block the initiative from the ballot. Speed filed the lawsuit as a private citizen, and he argues that the proposed constitutional amendment would improperly alter the state’s Bill of Rights. Like Barbour, Speed has said restricting eminent domain could hurt the state’s job-creation efforts.
A hearing on Speed’s lawsuit is set for July 25 in Hinds County circuit court.
Eminent domain has been an issue in dozens of states since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Connecticut case in 2005 that land could be taken for private development.
Mississippi’s party primaries are Aug. 2 for governor and other statewide, legislative, regional and county races. Primary runoffs, if needed, are Aug. 23.
Three other Republicans, two other Democrats, one independent and one Reform Party candidate also are running for governor. They were not invited to speak at the MPA convention because of time constraints and other considerations by the group’s board, said MPA executive director Layne Bruce.
The four candidates responded Friday to a question about whether they’d support creation of charter schools — public schools that are freed from some state regulations and are allowed to set longer hours, for example, or different academic courses. Supporters say charter schools allow innovation, while critics say they drain resources from other public schools.
Bryant said he supports creation of charter schools to bring new ideas to public education. He talked about a film documentary in which parents in another state cry when they learn their children aren’t chosen in an admissions lottery for a charter school.
“Look, I’d like to offer every public school that opportunity,” Bryant said. “I’d like to say, look, if you’d want to stay open and teach five-and-a-half days a week, if you want to be able to fire a bad teacher without retribution and you have a criteria that you can follow, you can get rid of those.”
Dennis did not specifically mention charter schools in his answer, but said competition helps improve schools and Mississippi’s economic future depends on a strong education system.
“You have to either educate or run the risk of incarcerating,” Dennis said.
Luckett said that since he launched his gubernatorial campaign two years ago, he has visited charter schools and has read all the books and studies he can about how to strengthen education.
“There are some wonderful aspects to charter schools,” Luckett said. “The concepts are something we need to look long and hard at adopting across the board, because we need to reach all our students.”
DuPree said Mississippi needs to concentrate on improving the existing public schools, and he believes charter schools would not work in the state because, for example, students in rural areas would have to wake up too early for long bus rides if schools operated longer hours.
He said schools need to be restructured to increase the emphasis on academics.
“I’ve seen firsthand what happens to a school system when we really think more about making sure that the ratio of the football team is 1-to-10 and the ratio of the classroom is 1-to-30,” DuPree said. “I think that’s an area, we need to turn our education heads around.”