On Eminent Domain, Trump Is Right

MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets people as he visits a polling station as
MANCHESTER, NH - FEBRUARY 09: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets people as he visits a polling station as voters cast their primary day ballots on February 9, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The process to select the next Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates continues. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
In the final GOP debate before the NH primary, Jeb Bush attacked Donald Trump for his support of eminent domain, which allows governments to seize private lands for projects for the public good. A day later, Marco Rubio repeated Bush's complaint.

Interesting, because as attention turns past New Hampshire, Trump could use eminent domain against Bush and Rubio in Florida.

In Florida today, coastal residents -- mostly in Republican districts -- are furious that the value of their coastal real estate is being trashed because Big Sugar has blocked the buyout by the state of lands adequate to the purpose of storing and cleansing its pollution. What's worse: a 2014 constitutional amendment approved by more than 75% of voters -- expressly for the purpose of generating a funding source for purchase of environmentally sensitive lands -- has been diverted by the GOP-led legislature.

It is the state's worst kept secret: Big Sugar counts on elected officials to continue shifting most of the cleanup costs away from its profit margin and to taxpayers and property owners on both Florida coasts.

Historic rainfalls in the region -- as much as five times the average -- caused the state's liquid heart, Lake Okeechobee, to rise so fast and so high that the state and US Army Corps of Engineers have fallen back on the formula that benefits Big Sugar first and foremost by releasing hundreds of billions of heavily polluted water into Florida's estuaries and rivers as an escape valve.

There is a solution, and it is along the lines of what Trump supports in principle: eminent domain to provide desperately needed surface water storage and trap this excessive rainfall instead of dumping it like a toxic flood on billions of dollars of coastal real estate values and small businesses that depend on tourism.

The mismanagement of Florida's water resources both north and south of Lake Okeechobee could have been fixed decades ago if the policy tool chest had been full, including eminent domain. US Sugar in 2008 actually entered into a deal to sell its lands without any discussion of "takings", but its competitor -- the billionaire Fanjuls -- hold key pieces of property and have been steadfast in their refusal to sell. In fact, US Sugar's only competitor, the Banjul billionaires of Palm Beach, threw their support to Marco Rubio in his single victory to win a US Senate seat in 2010 because his opponent, Charlie Crist, had the temerity of starting the state down the road of buying sugar lands for flood control and cleansing marsh purposes.

Eminent domain is a frequent target of criticism from conservative and anti-government groups. Both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio toed Big Sugar's line: don't use eminent domain under any circumstance to solve "environmental" problems like the Everglades or the estuaries and rivers. Of course it is not just the Everglades that need help: there is the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians and property owners along the St. Lucie, the Indian River, the Caloosahatchee and any business owner whose livelihood depends on tourism.

Eminent domain is controversial in Florida, thanks to the influence of major landowners like Big Sugar, dairy farmers, and land speculators. Florida's Constitution recognizes a landowner should not be put in a worse position after a condemnation than before. Full compensation, as the Constitution requires, includes attorneys fees.

So, no crocodile tears are due if elected officials decided to use eminent domain in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Bush said in the debate, "What Donald Trump did was use eminent domain to try to take the property of an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City. That is not public purpose. That is downright wrong."

Here is what is downright wrong: that Jeb Bush as governor of Florida was too afraid of Big Sugar to do anything to alleviate the conditions that have rematerialized this winter in Lake Okeechobee watersheds and the disastrous disposal of hundreds of billions of gallons of polluted farm runoff into the St. Lucie River, Indian River and Caloosahatchee. Marco Rubio, when asked, points to his experience in the Florida legislature defending property rights. Neither will admit or explain how their refusal to utilize eminent domain has cost taxpayers and the environment billions of dollars already.

Trump said that eminent domain was "a good thing" and was necessary to building roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. "Certainly, it's a necessity for our country." He was right. He added that the GOP supporters of Keystone Pipeline understand perfectly well that the pipeline they support could never be built without eminent domain.

As the GOP campaign focus turns to Florida, Trump should emphasize the policy role of eminent domain, ignored by Bush and Rubio not for ideological reasons but because they would never bite the sugary hands that feed them.