The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Home, Home on the Range, Where the Big Railroad Companies Graze Or South Dakotans Should Choo Choo Choose Their Own Destiny

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


When one thinks of western South Dakota, one imagines sweeping vistas and beautiful ranches.  However, the Dakota, Minnesota, & Eastern Railroad (DM&E) is threatening to grab massive swaths of this beautiful private land in western South Dakota to build 120 miles of new rail line.

This land grab, through eminent domain (a law in which government and, in rare cases, private companies, can forcibly obtain private property for a presumed public use), is a continuation of DM&E’s attempt to get into the coal-hauling business.

In 2005, DM&E tried to obtain a $2.3 billion loan for this project through sleights of hand and congressional help when Sen. John Thune, South Dakota republican and former lobbyist for DM&E, increased the Federal Railroad Agency’s budget from $3.5 billion to $35 billion (what’s a decimal point between friends?).  This was done with the intent to slip in the $2.3 billion DM&E loan.  Sen. Thune’s actions earned him CAGW’s Porker of the Month award in November 2006.

After exposing the corporate welfare nature of this handout, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste members and supporters sent 10,258 letters to their representatives in Congress in opposition to the loan between February 7 and February 14, 2008 and helped convince federal officials to nix the loan.  Now, still without financing for its coal line expansion, DM&E wants to grease the skids on its eminent domain request.  Through misstatements and promises of economic development that will surely not be kept, Senate Bill 174, a bill that tips the balance of power in eminent domain cases between property owners and railroads from even to favor the railroads, was passed by the legislature and signed into law on March 17, 2008 by South Dakota Governor M. Michael Rounds (R).

Senate Bill 174 gives railroads “quick-take” powers that are not provided to any other private entity in South Dakota.  For example: A railroad corporation wants to take property.  The property owner doesn’t want to sell for the price offered by the railroad.  The railroad corporation files a condemnation lawsuit against the property owner.  SB 174 provides that even while a condemnation lawsuit is continuing, private property may be taken “as soon as possible” by posting a bond with the court.  A railroad could take private property the same day it files a condemnation lawsuit.  Thus, the court would have a bond, the railroad would have the power to grab property, and the property owners would be tied up in court.  Property owners might not see a penny of compensation until years after their homes and land are bulldozed.

Fortunately, South Dakotans still believe in democracy.  Protect Private Property, an organization set up to oppose the law, has been collecting signatures for a referral petition.  Should they collect 16,776 valid signatures by June 16, 2008, the law will be up for a referendum vote in November.  More information on Protect Private Property and the referral drive can be obtained at their website, http://www.sdp3.org.

-- Paulene Staben – South Dakota CAGW member

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