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At the Senate Ag Committee hearing on HJR 86 last Wednesday, one savvy observer of Missouri politics who was sitting next to me told me that the big divide in this state isn’t between Republicans and Democrats but between rural and urban Missourians. As a suburbanite, I’m only vaguely aware of that conflict and our bloggers–city folk all except for one who grew up in a small town–focus almost solely on the enmity between political parties, usually oblivious to the other divide. But as I sat through that hearing, everything I heard bore out what the gentleman sitting next to me had said: these rural senators feel their way of life endangered by policies that city people try to impose on them.

So the Ag Committee senators from both parties–all of them farmers as far as I could tell–support a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the initiative petition process when it comes to those who raise livestock. In other words, they don’t want city dwellers to pass initiatives that tell them how to run their business. They’ve narrowed the bill to focus on animals and not mention crops. The relevant portion (in the last version I saw) said:

[N]o state law criminalizing or otherwise regulating the welfare or breeding of any domesticated animals shall be valid unless it has been enacted by the general assembly or promulgated by administrative rule….

[emphasis mine]

Which is a roundabout way of saying ‘keep your  damned initiative petitions out of our face and off our land.’

There were lots of polite observations from the senators and those testifying about how urban people fail to grasp basic facts about raising animals. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Tom Loehner, reminded listeners that lambs are born with eight inch tails that need to be docked. City people think that’s cruel. Rural people know that 40-50 percent of the lambs will die if their tails aren’t docked. Republican Senator Chuck Purgason responded that farmers just want to be able to raise animals and survive at it. They don’t go into farming to get rich; they go into it because they want to feed people. Then he mentioned that California had had an initiative petition to allow hunting of mountain lions. It passed in every county except Orange County. (Translation: ignorant city folk kept livestock breeders from protecting their animals.)

Democratic Senators Frank Barnitz and Wes Shoemyer concurred with those ideas. In fact, returning to Purgason’s comment that farmers just want to be able to survive, not get rich, Shoemyer (pictured at left) offered the notion that he does know how to make a small fortune at farming: start with a big fortune. Then Shoemyer took the argument one step further. He’s upset that the Humane Society (HSUS) is pushing an initiative petition to rein in Missouri’s puppy mill industry. He believes they’re doing it basically because dog breeders are the easiest target for interfering city folk to go after. He further believes that rural Missourians must unite, must be like a herd protecting a calf from a predator. “Once we whup ’em on this fight, they’ll go elsewhere,” said Shoemyer. There was much nodding of heads.

His attitude about dog breeders is that many farmers were forced into that business because the factory farms made it virtually impossible for independent livestock breeders to make a living raising hogs or chickens. Like Leslie Holloway, a witness from the Farm Bureau, he insisted that he doesn’t condone mistreating dogs. He and Holloway want more state regulators on the job finding and eliminating the bad actors. But the contempt for HSUS in that room was palpable. They believe that the initiative petition campaign is nothing more than a way for HSUS to raise money. Witness Dale Ludwig of the MO Soybean Assn. asserted that HSUS raises $100 million a year with campaigns such as this and that only $1 out of every $200 raised actually goes to pet care.

On the other side of this question about dog breeders is the Better Business Bureau’s recent scathing report. It says that one third of the federally licensed dog breeders in the country (as well as many unlicensed facilities) are in Missouri and that half of the complaints made to BBB nationwide are about puppies bought from Missouri breeders. Horror stories about abominable conditions in some facilities have surfaced, as well as many complaints about sick puppies who die soon after they are bought. But our cash strapped state has only 13 regulators to oversee all this.

Rather than a constitutional amendment to forbid initiative petitions that would restrict the puppy mill industry–in fact, rather than supporting an initiative petition–BBB has different ideas about how to alleviate the problems. It suggests:

  • That both the U.S. and Missouri Departments of Agriculture more aggressively pursue penalties against repeat offenders.
  • That Missouri consider raising annual licensing fees which have remained the same since the program of regulating dog breeders and sellers began 17 years ago.
  • That in seeking a puppy, consumers also consider “adopting” a pet from an animal shelter.
  • That Missouri consider legislation, if necessary, to streamline the process for penalizing repeat offenders, while still allowing for due process.

BBB’s solutions, however, may be coming too late. The Humane Society’s initiative petition campaign is gaining steam. Eighty-five percent of those polled support it. And so, senators on the Ag Committee see no way to stop further interference in their business than to negate the petition with a constitutional amendment that would void its results.

I’m not without sympathy for their viewpoint, but there are major problems with such a bill. First, it voids the results of initiative petitions only if they are aimed at livestock breeders. Anybody can start an initiative petition on any other subject. Whoa. That’s not exactly equal treatment to all Missourians, and it’s likely to be unconstitutional.

Furthermore, consider this wording in the bill:

No state law criminalizing or otherwise regulating the welfare or breeding of any domesticated animals shall be valid … unless it is consistent with scientific and economic standards generally accepted within the agricultural community.

Really? Who gets to decide what scientific standards are “generally accepted”? The Farm Bureau with some bogus study that supports the notion that CAFOs do no harm? No, this wording virtually guarantees that disagreements will frequently end up in court. Much as the Missouri legislature drives me crazy with many of its decisions, at least legislators are subject to pressure from the voters. Remember, those very voters pressured legislators to remove the “no local control of CAFOs” provision from this amendment. Try calling a judge before he rules on one of these issues and see how far you get.  

In general, I oppose state constitutional amendments anyway. The ones that are proposed–including this one–seldom merit being enshrined in the state constitution, and it’s relatively easy to get them passed. (Think of the unnecessary, because it was already illegal, ban on gay marriage.) BBB’s suggestions for solving the problem of inhumane dog breeders, if taken to heart, would solve the problem–and a helluva lot better than this amendment would. This constitutional amendment would do nothing to alleviate those problems. All it does is say, “Hands off.”

That’s not a solution. It’s just a way of dodging an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Ideally–and I’m dreaming, I suppose–senators on the Ag Committee would propose the legislation that BBB suggests. It is sensible. But if that’s not going to happen, I sincerely hope this amendment dies a slow death from several more revisions. Whether it dies or it doesn’t, though, the other problem remains: that the initiative petition to rein in puppy mills is likely, as the gentleman in the seat next to me warned, to create a culture clash in this state like no other we’ve witnessed.