When it comes to the general idea of using eminent domain to seize someone's private property in the name of economic development, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan hasn’t minced words.
He has called it an abuse of power and “wrong,” and twice has voted for bills — one of which he co-sponsored — to curb the practice.
But when it comes to the specific case of the Village of Mount Pleasant possibly using eminent domain to take homes away from people in the area where Foxconn Technology Group plans to build a $10 billion manufacturing complex, Ryan, who represents the village's residents in Congress, doesn’t have much to say.
“Kim, I wish I could assist you in addressing this matter,” Ryan wrote in January to a constituent worried about losing her home to the Foxconn project through eminent domain. “Unfortunately, I am unable to provide you with the assistance you need, as this issue is one that falls under the primary jurisdiction of the State of Wisconsin, not the federal government.”
Ryan struck a much different tone in 2005, when he co-sponsored a bill to deny federal economic development money to states or communities that use eminent domain to take private property without the owner’s consent and turn it over to another private party for use in a profit-seeking business.
“When someone works years to secure a home or establish a successful family store or restaurant, only to be forced by the government to give it up so a corporation can redevelop the land, that’s wrong,” Ryan declared at the time.
“I took an oath to defend the Constitution, and this means protecting citizens’ right to own private property and prevent government from abusing its power,” he said in a news release after voting with the 376-38 House majority to pass the bill.
The legislation, proposed in the wake of a widely criticized U.S. Supreme Court decision that authorized the government's taking of private property for private development, went no further. Similar bills have been introduced in every congressional session since without being enacted.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, like Ryan a Wisconsin Republican, has been an especially strong advocate for curbing use of eminent domain for economic development. He has introduced the “Private Property Rights Protection Act” five times.
The one time the legislation came up for a roll-call vote in the House, in 2014, Ryan voted for it.
The Mount Pleasant resident seeking Ryan’s help was Kim Mahoney, who with her husband, James, owns a home at 10440 Prairie View Drive. The property is in a small subdivision on the 1,200-acre tract where Foxconn plans to build a factory that could employ thousands building flat-panel monitors.
Mahoney said she called Ryan’s office in Washington and spoke with a staffer about the village’s potential use of eminent domain to acquire land for Foxconn. In response, the congressman on Jan. 5 sent a letter saying he could understand her frustration and concerns, but couldn’t help.
He recommended that she reach out to Gov. Scott Walker and her representatives in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, and included their contact information.
“I appreciate you trusting me to address this matter, and I regret that I do not have the jurisdiction to directly intervene on your behalf,” Ryan wrote. “However, if I can ever be of assistance to you in any matter that directly involves an agency of the federal government, please do not hesitate to let me know.”
Mahoney scoffed at that.
“Private property rights are guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S Constitution,” she said. “And if Congressman Ryan did not think eminent domain abuse by local municipalities was a federal issue, then why did he co-sponsor” the original Private Property Rights Protection Act?
“It’s happening in his own district,” Mahoney said. “His claim that it is not a federal issue — it’s absurd and it's chicken (expletive). I don’t know if that’s one or two words.”
A related issue that has irritated Mahoney and other owners of small parcels of property in the Foxconn area involves money.
Mount Pleasant has said it will offer homeowners 40% more than the market value price required by state law. But the owners of large pieces of open farmland — the key component in assembling the huge amount of real estate Foxconn needs — got a far greater premium.
They were paid $50,000 an acre. Real estate records indicate that open land previously was selling for a fraction of that price. Four separate parcels of open land within the designated Foxconn area sold between 2011 and 2014 at prices ranging from about $4,300 an acre to just under $8,000 an acre.
Asked by a reporter what Ryan thinks about the prospect of Mount Pleasant using eminent domain authority in a way that he previously has described as an abuse of government power, a spokesman for the House Speaker said by email:
“While the congressman continues to believe that Foxconn will bring a new era of manufacturing to the State of Wisconsin, he has not been involved in the local land acquisition process related to this project.”
Ryan has said Foxconn, with its plans to employ up to 13,000 people at good pay, is “an absolute game changer” for Wisconsin. He has said he helped advocate for the state with Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, and he stood beside Gou and Gov. Scott Walker when they announced the deal at the White House in July and when they signed a development contract in November.