Bill Lee’s Abuse of Eminent Domain

By Dr. Harold A. Black

I don’t know Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. I voted for him despite his going to Auburn and being a KA (Kappa Alpha fraternity). That fraternity was known for its racism. When I was at University of Georgia in the early 1960s, the KA house flew the Confederate flag and we were told to avoid walking past it. Lee himself is pictured in a Confederate uniform in Auburn’s 1980 yearbook. But that was then and hopefully, his sentiments are now different. When he was elected, I had high hopes. He was a businessman and not a career politician. I admit that I have paid scant attention to him since he was elected. He has made a rather feeble effort to improve the state’s dismal schools but it seems to be half-hearted. With Republican majorities in the state House, I would have hoped that the state would be as aggressive as Arkansas in taking on the Education Industrial Complex. Doing so would go a long way in atoning for being an Auburn grad and a KA.

However, one initiative by Gov. Lee is a blight on his record. That is the Ford plant in West Tennessee. The governor likely considers the new Ford plant as a crowning achievement. The state has offered over $800 million in incentives and Ford is building the plant to manufacture the electric F-150. The press release from the governor’s office states that the plant will generate more than 27,000 new jobs and generate over $1 billion in annual earnings. Color me a skeptic. Most economic studies show that such incentive packages seldom generate revenues that make the project worthwhile. Most of the jobs generated are not local and those currently unemployed or underemployed are not usually affected.

My displeasure stems from two sources. First, although Ford is currently advertising that it is “All in on America” noting that its F-series of pickups are made 100 percent in America, it has partnered with the Chinese to produce the batteries for the electric pickup. The Chinese factory was rejected by Virginia but approved by Michigan. The project is now on hold due to the ties of the company to the Chinese Communist Party. That company is to receive over $500 million in government subsidies. Note that Chinese companies are to be among the main beneficiaries of the subsidies in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Again, how much money did the Chinese give Hunter? Ford may be saying one thing in its advertisements but the reality is something entirely different.

My second source of displeasure is the use of eminent domain to seize the land of black farmers near the Ford plant. Eminent domain is allowed by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution which states that private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation. In reality, eminent domain has been a weapon used by governments against black property. Blacks are five times more likely to suffer eminent domain than whites. The interstate system is testimony to the fact that entire black neighborhoods have disappeared. Urban renewal projects were in reality urban removal projects where black property was seized with meagre compensation. Seldom, if ever, were residents offered “just compensation.” I am an economist and just compensation, to me, means the market price of the property. Instead, the price paid by governments has been anything but just. In west Tennessee, where once a 70-acre tract was valued at $10,000 an acre, the arrival of Ford caused the listing to jump to $14.5 million. The state is again using eminent domain to displace the black farmers who own the land that the state is seeking to acquire. The state is offering a ridiculous $3,750 an acre. This is outrageous and shameful. This is certainly no “just compensation” and is a blatant violation of the Fifth Amendment. It is also a blatant violation of what is right. As one black farmer stated “I told them this is the biggest rip off there is. They want your land, but they don’t want you to participate in the wealth.”

Even if the state offered market price, the farmers still would not recoup the true value of their land which has been in their families for many generations. My farm in Georgia has been in our family since 1868. A developer once offered my mother over $1 million for the 126 acres. Her reply was “You don’t have enough money to buy this land.” I am certain the West Tennessee farmers feel the same way. Ultimately, they will have little choice. But I hope they can sue the state for violation of the Fifth Amendment and receive at least the market value for their land. Regardless, Gov. Lee should be ashamed.