'Right to Farm' bill incites opposition

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Animal welfare groups concerned about puppy mills and animal abuse are coming out against State Question 777. Thursday, former Attorney General Drew Edmondson said if SQ 777 is approved, puppy mills could become legal because of Oklahoma’s definition of livestock.

Edmonson visited Norman this week to talk about the proposed amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution. Voters will reject or approve SQ 777 at the general election on Nov. 8. Dubbed the “Right to Farm” bill by supporters, opponents call it the “Right to Harm” bill.

If approved, the new constitutional amendment would make it difficult to protect pollinators such as monarch butterflies and bees, to enact laws to prevent animal abuse or cruelty, to limit numbers of animals in city limits, or to protect soil and water pollutants and other environmentally degrading practices, opponents say.

The measure would prevent any regulation of farming or ranching operations unless there is a “compelling state interest” for that legislation, raising it to the level of the right to vote or other basic civil liberties, Edmondson said.

Other states that have passed similar laws did not use the “compelling interest” language, so the legal ramifications are untested, he said.

Other states also included agricultural protections through state law, not through a constitutional amendment as Oklahoma is trying to do.

Multiple organizations including the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, the Bella Foundation, the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, Save the Illinois River, Oklahoma Coalition of Animal Rescuers, and other animal rescue groups have banded together to fight SQ 777 and to educate people on what the resulting change to the state constitution would be, Edmondson said.

While the Kirkpatrick Foundation does not endorse or oppose political issues, it has posted an analysis online of SQ 777 (kirkpatrickfoundation.com) that voters may find useful, he said.

• Puppy mills unleashed: Many animal welfare groups are concerned that owners of puppy mills would claim protection under SQ 777 because Oklahoma’s legal definition of livestock means any animal or bird in captivity.

That includes exotic animals. Edmondson said a municipality would not be able to restrict or limit how many tigers someone could have, for example.

• Corporate Farms versus small farmers: Opponents also argue that the proposal, rather than protecting farmers, will protect large corporate operations to the detriment of small, family farms.

Edmondson said the Chinese and others have already invested in Oklahoma farm and ranch land. According to the Kirkpatrick Foundation, “325,605 acres of Oklahoma agricultural land are already owned by foreign investors,” and SQ 777 would make it difficult for state lawmakers to cap the level of foreign ownership.

Oklahoma has 266 concentrated animal feeding operations statewide and practices at those large, corporate operations would be protected, according to Kirkpatrick and Edmondson.

Supporters of SQ 777 include the Pork Council and the Poultry Federation, industries often associated with pollution.

“My first concern is about the quality of our water,” Edmondson said. “We just fought that battle with poultry because of surface application of animal waste.”

The American poultry industry has dramatically increased production to meet growing demand resulting in fewer small, individually owned chicken farms and a dramatic increase in large, corporate chicken farms, according to the PEW Trust.

“In many cases, these large poultry farms pose major pollution problems for regional communities,” Pew reports.

Concentrated poultry operations create a huge amount of waste and pose a threat to water bodies. “Poultry companies used to put arsenic in the feed... it passes through through waste and it’s put on the land, cows eat that grass and it raises the arsenic in the beef we eat,” Edmondson said. “Right now, if warning flags go up, we at least have the opportunity to do something about it.”

• Power to protect removed: Edmondson said Oklahoma cities and towns would be hard pressed to create protective ordinances in if SQ 777 is approved.

“Because SQ 777 borrows its legal standard from cases involving equal rights and fundamental liberties, the deck would be strongly stacked against Oklahoma’s Legislature, its voters, and the citizens of its counties, cities, and towns,” should they want to enact any protective laws that infringed on “agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices,” according to Kirkpatrick.

While older laws would be grandfathered in, the proposal states that, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to modify or affect any statute or ordinance enacted by the Legislature or any political subdivision prior to December 31, 2014.”

That means any protective laws cities or the state passed after Dec. 31, 2014 would be subject to litigation if SQ 777 is approved by voters.

“The prohibition is on new statutes or prohibition that in anyway limit livestock operations,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson said SQ 777 would limit future debate about the safety of emerging corporate farm or ranch practices.

“Suppose I find out a particular pesticide or herbicide is causing a decline in the honey bee population and the Department of Agriculture suggests we restrict the use of it?” Edmondson said. “We couldn’t do anything about it.”

Oklahomans for Farm Families, League of Women Voters and the Oklahoma Municipal League are opposed or have expressed concerns about SQ 777. Edmondson said Oklahoma tribes are coming out against SQ 777 as well.

Put on the ballot through House Joint Resolution 1012 authored by Rep. Scott Biggs and Sen. Jason Smalley, the item had strong support in both the House and the Senate.

Locally, representatives who supported HJR included Republicans Bobby Cleveland, Josh Cockcroft, Scott Martin, Mark Mcbride, and Paul Wesselhoft.

Voting against were Norman Democrats Claudia Griffith and Emily Virgin. To see the full list of House votes, click here.

In the Senate, Norman lawmaker Rob Standridge voted for the measure while John Sparks was excused and did not vote. To see the full list of Senate votes click here.