On a recent afternoon in mid-April, hundreds of Missourians rallied at the Missouri Capitol to urge the legislature to protect their property rights. The rally was sparked by an egregious abuse of eminent domain in northern Missouri.
Several years ago, a group of investors announced plans to build a high-voltage wind energy transmission line from western Kansas to Indiana. They named this proposed “merchant transmission line” the Grain Belt Express.
Then the project changed hands. Like the first proprietors, the new company planned to build the Grain Belt Express to transmit power from one place to another to sell it for a profit, not to provide utility service to end-users. To facilitate construction, they sought permission from the government to use eminent domain to take land against the owners’ will.
Grain Belt’s request was based on strained arguments that the company was somehow a “utility.” After a long battle and more than one denial, the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) granted eminent domain power to build the line.
The decision outraged landowners. They correctly argued eminent domain should only be used for necessary public services like roads, schools, and utilities. Traditionally, utilities are companies that serve end-user customers in their community. Their rates and profits are regulated by the PSC to ensure they do not gouge consumers and stay focused on serving the public.
The operators plan to buy wind power from private wind farms and sell it to actual utility companies for profit. The company will not deliver power to any end-user customers, although it has agreed to send a small amount of power to a buyer in Missouri. The PSC would not regulate the company or its prices. There is no state oversight of how much the company could charge or how much profit it could bank for its investor owners. In short, this is a moneymaking venture, not a public service – and it’s wrong to force people to sell their land for a private project that doesn’t really benefit Missourians.
Using eminent domain in this way sets a very dangerous precedent and, arguably, makes it easier for our state to become the transmission superhighway for the Green New Deal. Sen. Jason Bean and Rep. Mike Haffner have introduced SB 508 and HB 527, respectively, to prohibit using eminent domain for merchant transmission lines. The bills would also require local county commissions to approve any such projects. These common-sense changes would not prohibit future lines. Instead, they would ensure developers treat landowners fairly and negotiate to buy easements.
The Missouri House of Representatives passed this legislation early in the 2021 session, and it is now awaiting a vote in the Senate. If you agree that property rights should not be for sale to the highest bidder, contact your senator today. Urge them to vote for eminent domain reform to protect Missouri property rights. If this abuse is not stopped today, it could be your farm they come for tomorrow.
Garrett Hawkins, a farmer from Appleton City, is the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.