For a bill that's mostly about symbolism, it was a symbolic defeat.

A local government-backed eminent domain bill cleared its first committee hearing on Tuesday, July 3, but the prospects for ultimate passage may have dimmed. The measure, ACA 8, survived the Assembly Local Government Committee 7-3 — but without a single Republican vote. Because it is a constitutional amendment, ACA 8 needs two-thirds support in both houses, which means it needs some GOP votes.

As we reported in June, the measure would essentially prohibit the taking of owner-occupied residences so that the property could be transferred to another private owner. Small businesses — those with 25 or fewer employees — could be taken only if the business owner declined to participate in the economic development project proposed for the site.

The Republican members of the committee picked holes in the bills. Why distinguish between small and large businesses, asked Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia.) Why aren't churches, farmland and rental properties addressed, asked Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Costa Mesa). What about the definition of "blight," asked Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico).

ACA 8 doesn't "get to the crux" of concerns raised by the Kelo decision, Keene said.

Bill author Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) emphasized that the bill would restrict the government's authority in an unprecedented way and noted that voters rejected more far-reaching eminent domain restrictions contained in last year's Proposition 90. He called ACA 8 a "thoughtful compromise."

But De La Torre won over no Republicans. Adams and Tran are co-sponsors of ACA 2 (Walters), which would prohibit the use of eminent domain for economic development. Although that bill is dead for the year, Republicans appear to be sticking by it.

Interestingly, opposition to ACA 8 was relatively light during the Assembly Local Government Committee Hearing. The National Federation of Independent Business and the California Farm Bureau Federation were the only substantial opponents. A number of other business groups, including the influential California Business Properties Association, have signed on in support.

However, this fight is about appearance more than it is about policy. The U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision upholding the use of eminent domain for economic development is at the heart of it all. And even Adams conceded that the Kelo situation — in which the City of New London, Connecticut, condemned an entire neighborhood to make room for a hotel and parking lot — could not happen here because of state redevelopment law. Keene, a former Chico city councilman, conceded that such redevelopment abuse in California is rare.

All of which means Californians should expect to vote on at least two initiatives on the subject next year.

- Paul Shigley