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Missouri Senate passes changes to eminent domain

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A bill that could have blocked the Grain Belt Express project in northern Missouri was modified and passed by the Senate early Thursday – and the newest version of the bill won’t affect Grain Belt at all.

The bill would modify provisions for utility companies to use eminent domain, the process by which private land is acquired to serve certain public needs, including roads, schools and utilities.

But the Senate’s version also specified that the new eminent domain provisions would apply only to prospective projects – which means they would not affect Grain Belt Express, a high-voltage transmission line project that has already been approved by the Public Service Commission.

The House bill sponsor, Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill, said in an interview that he approved of the Senate’s changes and that the House would take up the revised bill soon.

The original bill was sparked by opposition to the Grain Belt project, which would run 800 miles between Kansas and Indiana, including across Missouri.

The company behind the project, Invenergy Transmission, needs to use eminent domain to acquire the necessary land easements across eight Missouri counties. But those who oppose the project say only 7% of the power generated will go to Missouri. They argue this contradicts the Grain Belt Express’ status as a public utility in Missouri.

Haffner proposed a bill that would prohibit electrical projects that weren’t approved by county commissioners, regardless of whether the project was cleared by the state’s Public Service Commission. The bill also required that at least 50% of the energy created by a transmission line go to Missouri.

The substitute bill that was passed by the Senate nixed the veto power for county commissioners and adjusted the requirement for the amount of power reserved for Missouri. Instead of 50%, the substitute asks for an amount proportional to the length of the line running through Missouri.

The Senate substitute still upheld many of the original proposals: Companies using eminent domain for electrical lines must pay property owners 150% of the market value of the land –— and a farmer who has lived in the area at least 10 years would be involved in determining a land’s market value.

Sen. Jason Bean, R-Holcomb, said the substitute will still ensure Missouri residents will benefit from utility projects utilizing eminent domain.

The bill is a “good-faith step in the right direction to ensure Missouri landowners remain whole and can operate without the looming threat of energy projects negatively impacting their operation,” said Bean, the bill’s handler in the Senate.

Haffner agreed that the changes made were in line with his bill’s intentions. He said HB 2005 was never meant to hinder Grain Belt Express, specifically.

“The intent of this bill was to try to fix existing statute that was exasperated by the Grain Belt situation – it was never targeted at Grain Belt,” he said. “It’s a good bill. It fixes a lot of problems.”

A Grain Belt attorney testified in January that targeting Grain Belt with a “special law” would be unconstitutional and would invite a legal challenge.

Communities poised to buy power from the Grain Belt Express are in favor of the changes made in the Senate, said Ewell Lawson, chief operating officer of the Missouri Public Utility Alliance, a state association representing municipally owned utilities. Lawson said there are 39 communities across the state – including Columbia – that have acquired energy from Kansas that would be transported through the Grain Belt Express.

Lawson said the project’s ability to move forward will save those communities $13 million, and he believes the substitute was a fair compromise to property owners.

“We’ve been working on this for five to seven years,” Lawson said. “We’re pleased it’s seemingly resolved in regards to Grain Belt Express.”

Because the Senate made changes to the bill passed by the House, the legislation now moves back to the House for final approval. The substitute underwent a fiscal review Thursday, Haffner said, and could be placed on the House debate calendar shortly.


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