A bill that would increase legislative oversight of the University of Wisconsin System’s use of eminent domain lacks enough votes to make it to the Assembly floor.
State Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, said the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Homeland Security will not vote on the bill before the legislative session ends next month.
“It really comes down to: Is there enough of an argument to be made to increase oversight?” said Kessler, who is the committee’s chairman and opposes the bill. “It’s used very sparingly, and, at the moment, nobody’s asking me for any movement.”
State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink’s bill would require Joint Committee on Finance approval before the UW System board of regents invokes eminent domain to acquire property.
Vruwink, D-Milladore, did not return calls for comment.
Vruwink introduced the bill last year in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the owners of Brothers Bar & Grill in Madison against the board of regents. Eventually, UW-Madison wants to demolish the bar to make room for a music performance center, but the university lacks the money, a timeline and detailed plans for the project.
The bar owners last year sued the board of regents because the board used eminent domain, rather than negotiating a purchase price, to try to acquire the bar building on University Avenue. The case is awaiting an April trial in Dane County Circuit Court.
Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney for Madison-based Godfrey & Kahn SC representing Brothers, said the bill deserves a chance even though it stems from one incident.
“Whenever you have victims of abuse,” he said, “you try to go back and correct the system to try to protect someone else in the future.”
More legislative control of the UW System’s acquisition process means more ammunition for opponents to kill university projects, said Jeffrey Bartell, chairman of the board of regents Capital Planning and Budget Committee. He said the UW System rarely uses eminent domain but sometimes needs it to keep projects moving.
“We’re going to use it where it’s necessary, and that’s when owners are asking for substantially more than the fair-market value of their property,” Bartell said. “We’re not going to use it punitively against property owners.”
Sometimes eminent domain is necessary to save taxpayers’ money, Kessler said.
“Occasionally you have to do it for the public good,” he said. “This is not such a big deal.”
The Senate co-sponsors of Vruwink’s bill last week introduced an identical Senate bill, which was referred to the Senate Committee on Ethics Reform and Government Operations. A public hearing has not been scheduled.