By Malcolm Maclachlan

Republicans were able to head off a Democrat-backed eminent domain measure in the closing days of session last week, despite a huge lobbying blitz by the League of California Cities and other proponents. The measure’s supporters say Republicans got most of what they wanted in amendment negotiations–and probably shot themselves in the foot by rejecting it.

The two sides will now be heading into a ballot initiative battle next year. The League is pushing a narrow measure what they say would protect homeowners. A competing initiative from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association would make more far-reaching changes–such as abolishing rent control in California.

ACA 8 by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, would have placed an initiative on one of next year’s ballot, probably in June, that would have put several limits on the use of eminent domain by local governments in California. Because it would have altered the state constitution if approved by voters, the measure needed a two-thirds vote in the Assembly, or a total of seven Republican votes. De La Torre said he went into the September 11 vote thinking he had at least some of the Republican votes he needed.

In the end, he got zero–and a couple of Democrats abstained as well. De La Torre said he became worried a few months ago when Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, appointed Assemblywoman Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel–a hardliner on eminent domain–as lead negotiator with the League on the bill. Walters pushed ACA 2, a competing eminent domain effort that would have placed numerous restrictions. This including allowing owners to challenge eminent domain efforts even after they had accepted payment for their property. It stalled in the Assembly Judiciary Committee in early July.

“It was never really clear whether the [Republican] Caucus took a position on this or whether members were free to vote their conscience,” De La Torre said.

This led to a rather strange floor debate, De La Torre said–one in which Republicans complimented him, then urged defeat of his measure.

“Never have I been praised so much and gotten so little,” De said after the vote.

The opposition was led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The organization’s president, Jon Coupal credited Walters with leading the charge against the bill in the Assembly. He said his group’s goals go beyond defeating what he said was an initiative the lacks needed protections. Coupal pointed to a $1.2 million in lobbying fees paid by the League in the first six months of this year. Much of this money went to lobbying for ACA 8.

The California Redevelopment Association (CRA), another supporter of ACA 8, paid $272,000 over that time, much of it to Nielsen Merksamer, a prominent lobbying firm that also represents several counties. The League and the CRA are supported by taxpayer funds, he said. He likened spending taxpayer funds on this lobbying to “giving ammunition the enemy.”

“Clearly, that’s not in the best interests of taxpayers,” Coupal said.

Both sides said that the end-of-session standoff came despite months of negotiations. The League talked extensively to both Walters and Coupal–and eventually gave them most of what they wanted. ACA 8 was originally written to protect only single-family homes from being taken by eminent domain and then sold or given to private interests for redevelopment. De La Torre took amendments to include churches, small businesses and farmland as well.

When Republicans started bringing up protections for vacation homes, De La Torre said, he knew the other side wasn’t negotiating in good faith–because there are few vacation homes in the kind of blighted areas where eminent domain is usually exercised.

“There were so many red herrings it fouled the water,” De La Torre said.

“Republicans lost an opportunity to pass an eminent domain reform package that we know polls in the 70 percent range,” said Mike Madrid a Republican consultant and adviser to the League of Cities. “Now they are taking their chances on the Jarvis measure that is far less popular with voters and likely to fail. Ultimately, what this comes down to is Republicans still don’t know how to take a win.”

Coupal tells a different story. It was the League that brought issues near the end that scuttled negotiations–specifically demands from environmentalists that a poison pill be placed into the measure.

Because it is a constitutional amendment and not a bill, ACA 8 is eligible to come back next year. But De La Torre said that he might not bring it up, given that the League and the Jarvis group will probably have competing initiatives on ballots next year. The League is backing a narrow measure that would protect only single family homes. It has been cleared for signature gathering by the Secretary of State.

Meanwhile, the Jarvis group is pushing a more-far reaching measure that would, among other things, abolish rent control in California. According to the summary on the Attorney General’s website, the Jarvis initiative “Prohibits rent control and similar measures. Prohibits deference to government in property rights cases.” Coupal said that he sees eminent domain and rent control as aspects of the same issue.

“There are different ways for the government to take your property,” Coupal said.

Just as the legislative battle led to big spending, both sides on the initiative campaigns are loading up as well. The Jarvis initiative is being pushed by a Jarvis backed group, No New Taxes, that has loaded up with $635,000 in mostly-small donations since the beginning of 2004–not counting $73,000 the Taxpayers Association put in on Sept. 6. The Jarvis group has also spent $628,000 on lobbying this year–again, much of it aimed at ACA 8.

The League and it’s allies have also been spending big. The League put in over $3.5 million to help narrowly defeat Proposition 90 last year–and put another $50,000 into Californians Against the Taxpayer Trap, the group they used to fight Prop. 90, back in May. They’ve put nearly half a million into their PAC since last year.

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