Texas state lawmakers looking to reform the eminent domain process were unable to find common ground this session, despite hundreds of hours of negotiation.
State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst's Senate Bill 421 sought to better protect property owners when private companies condemn their land — a nod to landowners in Texas who've grown accustomed to encroaching oil and gas pipelines. The bill would've required public meetings between property owners and industry groups and instituted measures to prevent low-ball offers to property owners, among other reforms.
But after the bill was markedly watered down in a House committee and approved in that chamber — a charge led by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland — the legislation couldn't make it out of a joint House-Senate conference committee. The House version of the bill removed too many of the provisions Kolkhorst believed were critical, including measures aimed at restoring condemned land to as close to its original condition as possible.
“The language of the House version would have turned back the clock for landowners and greatly harmed them,” Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, said in a statement Sunday. “I cannot agree to the Craddick proposal, which would do the opposite of what we set to do: help level the playing field for landowners in the taking of their property.”
In a statement the day before, Craddick, who chairs the House Committee on Land and Resource Management, said the House version “corrected shortcomings” from the Senate original.
Kolkhorst's bill, SB 421, was originally sponsored in the House by state Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, but Craddick took over the bill when it came to his committee. A spokesman for Burns declined to comment on Craddick's move, but Kolkhorst's statement suggested Craddick “seized the legislation” from him — a move that “weakened SB 421 to the benefit of condemning authorities.”
Craddick pinned the blame on Kolkhorst, writing that her office "made no effort to meet with me" on the version of the bill the House passed — or a potential compromise — ahead of a Saturday legislative deadline.
Earlier last week, Kolkhorst attempted to revive parts of her bill, adding some of SB 421 as an amendment to House Bill 2831. That legislation, by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, would have expanded the notification process in eminent domain cases. But Canales' bill didn't advance either.
This is the third consecutive legislative session in which Kolkhorst has filed eminent domain legislation.
Kolkhorst — who owns Kolkhorst Petroleum, a fuel distribution company, with her husband — said at a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing in March that she would never be against fossil fuels but that she wants a fairer and more transparent process for landowners, especially those who may not wish to sell their land. She pointed to “hundreds of hours of negotiations between landowners and industry groups” that she hoped would lead to meaningful reforms.
After the House voted on Craddick’s version of SB 421 on Wednesday, groups like the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association said that despite “significant concerns,” they were glad to see the legislation advance. They were hopeful changes more significant for landowners would be added back in during the conference committee process.
And the Texas Farm Bureau — which represents agricultural producers across the state — said the House version simply did not go far enough to reform the eminent domain process.
But Dave Conover at Kinder Morgan, an oil and gas pipeline company, said the House version struck “a reasonable balance” between greater transparency and protections for landowners and energy infrastructure projects.
On Monday, after it was clear the bill would not advance, Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, sent a letter to lawmakers saying it was “regrettable that a balanced and functional” eminent domain bill didn't pass this session. But he added that when statutory changes are being considered, “there is no room for error.”
“We remain committed to working with landowners and the Texas Legislature in the development of the infrastructure that all Texas communities and families rely upon every day,” Staples wrote.
Kolkhorst isn't giving up. “This issue will and must remain a top state legislative priority,” she said.
State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, echoed that sentiment, tweeting Sunday, “Thank you @loiskolkhorst for all your much-needed hard work on eminent domain this session. We’ll get it over the finish line in 2021.”
Disclosure: The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, and the Texas Farm Bureau have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.