A matter of property rights
Property rights were on the mind of State Rep. Blake Filippi this past week after the language in a couple of bills that dealt with land acquisition issues caught his eye.
First it was Senate Bill 43, which came over the transom just minutes before the close of session on Tuesday, Sept. 19. The General Assembly shuts down at 10 p.m. “It’s about three minutes to ten and this will be the last bill we take up,” said Speaker Nicholas Mattiello of Senate Bill 43, according to a video of the session posted on ritv.devosvideo.com.
“Senate Bill 43 would expedite the foreclosure procedure on vacant properties and would amend the provisions of the General Laws on tax sales in order to establish priorities on tax liens, clarify the effect of late recordings and simplify procedures in the event of a void sale... I move passage,” said Rep. Cale Keable, a Democrat representing Burrillville and Glocester, on the tape.
“I would have dug in a little deeper if I knew it was on the calendar, but I want to raise a couple of issues I have with it in hopes that it would be voted down,” said Filippi, according to the video recording. (Filippi is a Republican who represents House District 36, which includes New Shoreham.) Saying that tax sales are “highly complex,” Filippi outlined the basic procedure, which is that someone can purchase a piece of property in a tax sale but the previous owner has up to a year to make good on whatever taxes or bills on which they may have been in arrears. If the previous owner does not make good on those liens, the gavel is dropped and the previous owner is then committed to what is known as a “foreclosure to the right of redemption.” In other words, when the “foreclosure to the rights of redemption” is approved, the property can then be transferred to the person or persons that purchased it in the tax sale.
What bothered Filippi was that, among other things, the new bill changed the amount of time given to the original owner to make good on their overdue taxes or bills — currently a full year — and which the bill shortened to six months. “We’re now reducing that one-year period down to six months. So if your property is taken from you and you didn’t know anything was happening, and you weren’t given proper notice... now instead of having one year to go to court and say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here,’ now you only have six months. This is going to take people’s property away from them, I assure you,” Filippi said on the House floor. “Instead, we should be extending this one-year period, not truncating it.”
Filippi also pointed out that the current law allows the original owner to come in to court even on the last day of the year-long grace period and pay off the debt, or ask for additional time to pay off the debt. Filippi, in the objection he made on the House floor to the bill said that the new statute prevents the previous owner from paying off the debt, but instead “you have to file an answer before” that last day you are allowed to reclaim your property. “I think that if your property is going to be taken from you,” Filippi said on the House floor, “I think you should be able to just show up in court and not have to file a formal pleading before you have to say to a judge, ‘Don’t let them foreclose on my rights to redemption and take my property from me.’” Filippi said that most of the “people that have tax sales happen to them are poor. They don’t have the ability to go hire a lawyer... Has anybody looked at the tax sale statute? I’m an attorney and I’m sometimes confused by it.”
“This bill,” Filippi said, “Is going to infringe on property rights... This is a bad bill. It should be voted down. All of us will hear about this if we pass this bill.”
The bill was then sent back to the Judiciary Committee, which Filippi told The Times would “effectively kill the bill.” He also said it was unusual that a bill is killed at the last minute.
The other bill dealt with the authorization of $38 million in public financing for a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox, and contained language regarding the government’s right to take property through eminent domain that alarmed elected officials on both sides of the aisle. The two bills associated with the stadium, S. 0989 and S. 0990, have been tabled until January.
Filippi said the bill’s language aligned itself to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo vs. The City of New London, which allowed the government eminent domain authority to take private property for economic development. Filippi called the bill a “property rights disaster.”
Under the provisions of the “Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, a part of the Bill of Rights, the government can take private property (while offering the owner “just compensation”) for “public use,” which Filippi said has usually been interpreted as the building of roads, bridges and the like. The Kelo decision appeared to expand that definition to include economic development by private companies.
Watchdog groups have raised alarms over the language in the bill. “Senate members have said, ‘We see the problem and have to fix it’,” said Filippi.