UPDATED: Did Hutchison vote against protecting landowners?
Tue September 29, 2009 4:08 pm

This headline from a press release from the Perry campaign caught my attention:

Kay Bailout Express delivers more earmarks, fails to protect landowners

The first part of the release attacks Hutchison for voting for the Department of Interior’s appropriations bill:

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison today continued her 16-year tradition of supporting earmarks and deficit spending by voting for an appropriations bill that increases the Department of Interior’s funding by $4.6 billion (16 percent), includes more than 300 earmarks costing taxpayers $244.5 million, and provides the Environmental Protection Agency with a 33 percent budget increase.

This vote highlights the downside for Hutchison of remaining in the Senate. The Democrats control the Senate, they write the bills, and there is nothing a Republican, or all the Republicans, can do to stop them. She could cast a symbolic “no” vote, but then she would likely have a harder time getting money for Texas in the next appropriations bill that comes along. Every vote she casts is fodder for a Perry press release. “Earmarks” have become a dirty word in American politics. While they can be, and have been, abused, there is an argument to be made for them: They typically represent the wishes of people in a senator’s home state, and the earmark ensures that the money is spent for the designated purpose; without earmarks, the bureaucracy can spend the money however it wants.

A more searing criticism was that Hutchison had failed to protect landowners. Government abuse of eminent domain is a hot-button issue among Republican voters. The release charged:

In addition, Sen. Hutchison stood with all but one Senate Democrat to defeat an amendment by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn that would have prohibited the federal government from using $400 million included in the bill to acquire private property from landowners.

What was she thinking of? My immediate reaction was that this was a terrible vote. I called the Hutchison campaign to ask why she voted against the Coburn amendment. Here was their response:

The Perry folks have the wrong Coburn amendment. The Coburn amendment to protect private property rights was agreed to by unanimous consent.

In other words, every senator present is recorded as voting for the amendment, including Hutchison. She did not vote against the amendment.

The Perry campaign may have confused the property rights amendment with a different Coburn amendment that prohibited Interior from going ahead with new projects until a backlog of old projects was completed. Hutchison voted against it, according to her campaign, because she is seeking funding for four projects that would have been jeopardized by the amendment: two national wildlife refuges (one in the Rio Grande Valley, one in the Hill Country near Austin), restoration work at the Fort Davis historical site, and Big Thicket preservation. Nineteen senators voted for the Coburn amendment. Among those voting no were Republicans Brownback, Burr, Gregg, Isakson, Sessions, McConnell, and McCain, fiscal conservatives all.

I am not suggesting that the error was intentional. Procedural rules in any legislative body can seem inscrutable to those who are unfamiliar with it. But if the Hutchison campaign’s explanation is correct, the criticism of Hutchison’s vote on the property rights amendment is unfounded.

This was the end of my original post. The Hutchison camp was displeased because I quoted Perry’s press release, and because I had qualified my conclusion that the Perry campaign was wrong. Further, they rejected my assertion that the procedural rules were inscrutable. Shortly after I posted this story, I received a call from a credible person with the Perry campaign. This is what I was told:

Yes, Hutchison voted for amendment #2483, by Coburn, which would have prohibited the federal government from using $400 million included in the bill to acquire private property from landowners. But she voted against amendment #2482, also by Coburn. This amendment required that money be spent on maintenance projects at national parks rather than on new projects or land acquisition. Cornyn voted for it.

I then checked back with the Hutchison campaign, passing along the information that I had received from the Perry campaign. This was the Hutchison campaign’s response: The Perry campaign had it exactly backwards. Amendment #2482 was the amendment that protected landowners and was approved by unanimous consent.

The Hutchison campaign provided a link to the congressional equivalent of Texas Legislature Online. Here is the description of amendment #2482: “To protect property owners from being included without their knowledge or consent in any Federal preservation and promotion activities of any National Heritage Area.” The Senate adopted this pro-property rights language by unanimous consent.

So what did amendment #2483 do? Its stated purpose was “To help preserve America’s national parks and other public land treasures by reducing maintenance backlogs that threaten the health and safety of visitors.” The effect of the amendment was to require that the first priority for the funds appropriated was to spend them on maintenance backlogs, rather than new projects or the purchase of land. Hutchison voted for the motion to table the amendment. Why? Because she (and other senators) had new projects in the bill that she wanted to be funded. I mentioned the projects in the original post: two wildlife refuges, the Fort Davis historical site, and the Big Thicket. The motion to table prevailed by a vote of 79-19, allowing these projects to move forward. Cornyn voted against the motion to table, which was effectively a vote to delay (and for all practical purposes, kill) the implementation of these Texas projects. If the Coburn amendment had been adopted, the Hutchison campaign says, these projects would likely never have been funded.

What about the question of property rights? In his speech on amendment #2483, Coburn says:

What is the priority? Is the priority for the Federal Government to consume more land, restrict more access, limit the freedom of people around that land and on that land, or is it to let Americans own the land and take care of the land the Federal Government already has? It owns a third of the land. How much land is enough for the Federal Government to own? How much is enough, especially when most of the land we own we are not taking care of. We are letting it fall down. The question has to be: What are the priorities?

The committee says the priority is to buy more land. This amendment says the priority is to repair and take care of the land we have. It specifically directs this money to the National Park Service to help with a backlog of falling down structures and the increased risk of safety for both park employees and visitors.

Coburn’s amendment #2483 would have required that the funds in question be used solely for maintenance. Had it passed, the effect would have been to knock out new projects AND land acquisition. As I understand the Perry campaign’s argument, it is that amendment #2483 also protected property rights by prioritizing maintenance and repairs, thereby assuring that the money could not be used to purchase land. It seems a stretch to call a vote against the amendment an anti-property rights vote, when Hutchison had previously cast an unambiguous vote for property rights on amendment #2482 and the motivation for her vote against amendment #2483 was clearly to preserve projects for Texas. So I would say that the answer to the question posed in the headline is: No.

My own view of this is that most Americans love going to national parks – indeed, tonight I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the early days of the national parks system – and I suspect that most would find nothing wrong with using federal funds to enlarge the size of the parks, so long as the purchase is for fair market value.

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