April 27, 2019

By Ian Nickens
Missouri News Network

Shortly before House Bill 1062 came to the House floor, hundreds of farmers and landowners filled the Capitol rotunda.

Several of the major players in state government assured the crowd that a private company wouldn’t be able to take their land.

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden and Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr all proclaimed that the power of eminent domain for the Grain Belt Express project would die by the hands of the House, then the Senate.

“I see a sign in the second row there — it says ‘unjust, unreasonable’ … in 45 minutes, eminent domain will be unlawful, too,” Haahr, R-Springfield, said.

A little more than 45 minutes after the rally, House Bill 1062 was debated on the House floor. The bill, which bars Grain Belt and similar projects from using eminent domain to take property, was given initial approval.

The issue in question is a private company’s ability to take private land and compensate the owner to build power lines. Eminent domain itself can be used for a variety of projects, but HB 1062 focuses specifically on the construction of above-ground power lines.

The company HB 1062 primarily affects is Clean Line Energy Partners, which is trying to build a 780-mile system of power lines in order to deliver wind energy to several states, including Missouri. In order to do this, Clean Line needs to build over private land, and some landowners aren’t willing to give their land up.

The dominant argument in favor of blocking eminent domain is that the right to private property shouldn’t be infringed upon by a private company.

“This is just another attempt by private companies under a government commission to limit our personal liberties,” bill sponsor Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, said as he introduced his bill. There were also concerns about how the power line could negatively affect property value and how it could damage farming land. The lawmakers also questioned why an out-of-state company should have this power.

“The lady who testified on their behalf (at a hearing) started by saying that she had ‘Midwest values,’ do you remember that?” Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, said. “Then I asked her where she was from and where the company was from and she remarked, ‘Chicago.’”

Basye was referencing a committee hearing for HB 1062, when supporters of the bill argued that the Grain Belt Express does not provide enough benefit to Missouri to make eminent domain necessary, claiming less than 12 percent of the power that would flow through the lines would go to Missouri consumers.

However, the cities of Rolla, Lebanon, Lamar, Odessa, Higginsville, Shelbina, Kirkwood, Marshall and Hannibal disagree. Those cities all provided testimony to the committee, stating that the project would generate millions in tax revenue and create jobs.

Columbia also would benefit from the Grain Belt project. The city council voted in 2017 to approve a contract with the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission to purchase up to 35 megawatts of wind energy beginning in 2021, at a rate much lower than other wind power purchases the city has made.

Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, talked about the projected immediate tax benefit projected for the project.

“Think about what a huge difference $13 million being plugged into the economy could make in your small community and our bigger communities all around the state — it’s a huge economic impact,” McCreery said. “I think that this is an example of being able to use eminent domain as one of the tools in the toolbox in order to accomplish a greater good.”

Others fought that notion.

“We’ve been told that these people will be well-compensated and it’s going to do so much for the economy and so these poor counties — I come from a poor part of the state — and those things matter, but there ends up being more important overarching values,” Rep. Jeff Shawan, R-Poplar Bluff, said.

Opponents of the bill also saw the attack on eminent domain as an attack on green energy.

“If you’re an oil company with a pipeline going through, you can still use it like you have before,” Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said. “But all of a sudden you have this green project that’s providing cleaner and cheaper energy to our state and other states, and all of a sudden we’re drawing a line that says, ‘Well this one — they can’t use it. They can’t do it.”

“For an awful long time we’ve subsidized oil and we don’t seem to have a problem with that,” Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, said. “So why do we suddenly have a problem with subsidizing wind?”

Those in favor of the bill insisted that their support hinged on protecting property rights, not attacking on green energy.

“I’m not opposed to green energy,” Hansen said. “I’m not opposed to Ameren or what we’ve done in Northwest Missouri where people have gone to landowners and struck a deal and paid them to put up an individual windmill on their property. That’s fine.”

No matter the argument about the potential money the project could bring or the benefits of using clean energy, the conversation consistently came back to the battle cry of the rally participants and the Republicans.

“The bill in front of us today is narrow,” Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon, said. “We have the opportunity to save the property of a small group of people. I would like to do a lot more today. I can’t. But what I can do is send a statement very loudly and very clearly that we will protect the property rights of the people of Missouri.”

Those people went to the Capitol to tell representatives like Lovasco exactly what they thought.

“For farmers, this could be lands that have been in the family for six or seven generations, that we have worked hard to pay for,” farmer Addie Yoder said. “It’s a family heritage. To have someone to come through and take it from you, it hurts our hearts. We take it very personally. We are very invested with our livelihood. That’s something we work very hard to protect and take care of so that we can pass it on to our kids.”

Some attendees drove hours to go to the Capitol and speak with their representatives.

“It’s the greatest violation of property rights,” farmer Loren Sprouse said. “This thing passes by 50 homes (nearby), all of which their property values would be depreciated.”

“We have tremendous outpouring of leadership in the House and the Senate,” Gary Marshall, CEO of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, said. “We just felt it was important to be here to show them how much this legislation means to us.”

Gaëlle Fournier and Kelsey Wu contributed to this report. Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.