Next Tuesday, in addition to candidates for office, you will have the chance to vote on two proposed amendments to the Virginia Constitution. Unlike the United States Constitution, amendments to the Virginia Constitution are relatively frequent. To be placed on the ballot, an amendment must be passed in identical form by the General Assembly for two consecutive years with an intervening election between the two votes.
Several constituents have been kind enough to ask for my opinion. I support both of the amendments and offer my rationale as you consider how to vote.
Question #1 - Eminent Domain
The first proposed amendment (Article I, Section 11) sets stricter limits on when and how government may take private property. In a 2005 case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the taking of private property not just for traditional public improvements such roads, schools, and parks, but also to facilitate private commercial development. That is, they found it to be perfectly constitutional for the government to take private property and give it to another private entity if the government thought that doing so would result in a public benefit such as a higher tax base.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor summed up my perspective best in her strong dissent when she wrote "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."
While the General Assembly changed the Code of Virginia so that private property in Virginia could only be taken for public purposes, the proposed amendment puts this restriction in the Virginia Constitution and further expands the definition of just compensation for a taking. Given how foundational private property rights are to our system of government and the fact that the issue was originally constitutional in nature, I voted for the measure. The concerns I have heard relate to the relative permanence of constitutional amendments and also the fact that the amendment states that just compensation should consider lost profits. With regard to the first, I think that is exactly why we need an amendment. Otherwise it becomes too easy for the General Assembly to make exceptions at the behest of those who have disproportionate power in Richmond. Regarding compensation for lost profits, I think that this is a good thing, if it is done reasonably. Imagine having your business -- your livelihood -- taken and only being compensated for the underlying value of the property? The General Assembly gets to determine what is reasonable, which I believe is an appropriate check. Another concern that has been expressed is that local governments would somehow have to compensate a business for lost profits every time they did something that affected the business -- such as close a street. However, the amendment only addresses when there is a physical taking of private property, not simply an action by a government that affects a property's value.
Question #2 - General Assembly Veto Session
The second proposed amendment (Article IV, Section 6) allows the General Assembly to delay the start of the annual veto session by up to one week. After the end of every legislative session, the General Assembly is required by the Virginia Constitution to meet beginning on the sixth Wednesday following the session to consider vetoes or amendments proposed by the Governor. The veto session usually lasts for only one day and cannot last more than ten days.
The amendment simply provides the General Assembly the flexibility to delay the start of the veto session to avoid conflicts. An example might be avoiding a religious holiday such as Passover. I think that is reasonable, and so voted to support this amendment as well.
The wonderful thing about our democracy is that the voters get to make the final decision. More information on the proposed amendments can be found at www.sbe.virginia.gov. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to share your perspective on these amendments.