Supporters and opponents of State Question 777 will square will off in Nov. 8’s election, facing a ballot question many claim was written by a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
How many realize it is actually more extreme? Oklahoma’s proposed new law, the innocuous-sounding “Right to Farm Act’’ act, would practically ban any new agricultural laws written by Oklahoma’s Legislature. That’s the point made by former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who represents the opposition to State Question 777.
The constitutional amendment would turn back the clock on Oklahoma agriculture the same way the tax cuts hurt Oklahoma’s budgets, he said. In an interview with The Frontier, Edmondson called 777 “the most dangerous question that’s on the ballot this year.”
“We need to pay attention and watch closely,” he said, calling the bill the “Right to Harm.”
“This bill will do great harm to Oklahoma’s citizens,” Edmondson warned. “What 777 wants to do is give agricultural industry the same fundamental right as your church, your newspaper, or your right to participate in a forum like this. I think that’s overkill.”
It all boils down to a phrase he and others attribute to Oklahoma’s current attorney general, Scott Pruitt. According to several sources, Pruitt added a phrase — compelling state interest — to the original law inspired by ALEC, a national organization of businesses and conservative state legislators dedicated to crafting pro-business legislation.
Pruitt declined interview requests but his spokesman denied that the attorney general came up with the “compelling state interest” language.The phrase will present a high bar for any entity seeking to regulate Oklahoma’s agricultural industry, which includes many operations owned by foreign corporations.
What do the proponents of 777 say? Though there’s no current threat that animal rights legislation is in danger of passing in Oklahoma, they want to prevent that from happening in the future.
“This helps protect our food supply from extreme groups,” said Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, author of a bill that is the foundation for the state question. “When you talk about moving forward, what better way than to protect our food supply?”
Judging from the latest poll numbers, however, many voters may not agree such an approach is needed.
The state question has shifted in public support more dramatically than any of the seven questions on the ballot, according to SoonerPoll, which bills itself as an independent, nonpartisan polling firm.
In July, support for the state question was at 53 percent. As of Monday, just 37 percent of those polled strongly support or somewhat support passage of the state question. However, the question has one of the highest percentages of undecided voters: nearly 14 percent.
Municipalities have expressed concerns about the impact the amendment could have on water quality. The city council of Oklahoma City voted for a resolution opposing the state question while Tulsa’s city council urged voters to consider the state question’s consequences.
Impact of state question debated
Edmondson expressed his concern about phrase tucked in the center of SQ 777: “Under this extra protection, no law can interfere with these rights unless the law is justified by a compelling state interest — a clearly identified state interest of the highest order.”
During development of the bill in the state Legislature, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau shepherded the process to ensure the question’s final language would be strong.
Pruitt’s spokesman, Lincoln Ferguson, said in a statement: “It is the statutory duty of the attorney general to explain the effect of a law in a way that Oklahoma voters can understand. As he did with every other state question, Attorney General Pruitt rewrote the ballot title for State Question 777 to fairly and accurately describe the measure’s effects.”
Ferguson said the “compelling state interest” language was taken directly from the legislation that is the foundation for the state question, HJR 1012.
However, the “compelling state interest” statement was added by Pruitt, said Farm Bureau President Tom Buchanan. In its magazine, Oklahoma Country, the Bureau lauded Pruitt’s efforts.
“Our Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, wrote careful language in this constitutional amendment to protect Oklahomans in the form of the phrase ‘compelling state interest,'” the magazine states.
In an interview with The Frontier for this story, Buchanan reiterated Pruitt’s role.
“We didn’t come up with that terminology. Hell, I’m not a lawyer,” Buchanan said.
“Compelling state interest was intentional in this. It is constitutional language. In my mind it allows future Oklahomans to pass legislation that is needed, but not feel-good.”
Edmondson, who is a lawyer, said the “compelling state interest” phrase means the state will have its hands tied when faced with any issues related to agriculture in the future — such as pesticide use or water pollution.
Particularly troubling, he said, is the possible effect on water quality.
A law passed in 2015 declaring water to be a “compelling state interest” will be nullified by 777, which will turn back all legislative regulations to those enacted in 2014 or before.
Edmondson said that because of the way large hog and poultry operations work in Oklahoma, feed additives — such as antibiotics, hormones and chemicals — end up in Oklahoma’s water. Animal waste is often sprayed over fields and waste ponds to dispose of it, and much of the waste finds its way into Oklahoma’s streams, rivers and lakes.
“I will remind you, the poultry companies put arsenic in the feed for decades. It wasn’t the farmer’s idea. … They don’t make these decisions,” Edmondson said. “The hog producers don’t. The poultry producers don’t. These decisions are dictated by the companies who don’t give a damn what goes into the water in Oklahoma.”
Records show some of the world’s largest agribusinesses have contributed thousands to the campaign coffers of Oklahoma lawmakers. Pruitt’s campaign fund received $5,000 in 2014 from The Monsanto Company Citizenship Fund, a political action committee affiliated with the multinational Monsanto corporation.
The PAC donated to the campaign funds of more than 30 lawmakers in recent years, including Biggs in 2014, records show. A lobbyist for Monsanto also contributed to Biggs’ campaign.
An investigation in April by News9, The Frontier’s media partner, found there have been 134 reported discharges of waste at pig, cattle and dairy operations since 2010, totaling more than 670,000 gallons of waste.
At a recent forum in Bartlesville, Pruitt defended the “compelling state interest” phrase as it pertains to water quality.
“The DEQ — the Department of Environmental Quality — the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Department of Agriculture that have oversight now, that have regulatory authority with respect to water quality, that’s not going to change. Their ability to issue rules and regulations is not going to change,” Pruitt said.
“What will change, as they do that, is have they used the least restrictive approach to (regulating) farming and ranching and agriculture practices?”
However, there’s no proof Pruitt’s prediction will hold true, because any attempt to pass new regulations would likely end up in court as both sides argue over whether the regulations are protecting a compelling state interest.
Edmondson said industrial agricultural practices including widespread pesticide use, waste ponds for pig manure and use of genetically modified crops could gain protection from future legislative action.
“(It) won’t be the Legislature deciding; it will be a judge. That judge will decide if protection of water, of land or of people has been proven scientifically and constitutes a compelling state interest,” Edmondson said.
The former attorney general said 777 “might be called for if there was a problem in Oklahoma.”
“I have asked over and over again, ‘What is happening in Oklahoma that gives rise to a demand for this kind of protection?’ I don’t hear about anything we have passed in Oklahoma through the Legislature that says we need this kind of protection in Oklahoma.”
From ALEC to now
Michael Kelsey, the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, a strong backer of the question, said the movement started after the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), PETA and the Sierra Club, pressured the Legislature to require more humane cages for chickens at poultry operations, which he credited with adding new costs to farming.
Other state legislatures began preparing “Right to Farm” measures, originally based on proposals from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. One version was adopted in North Dakota and recently, a stronger version passed in Missouri by a thin margin of voters.
However, neither of these approved bills come close to the scope of Oklahoma’s proposed question, which would amend the state constitution, elevating agricultural practices used by farmers to a new constitutional right.
Kelsey said he agreed with Edmondson that there are no pro-animal rights movements currently in Oklahoma such as those that were successful in California.
Barring a radical shift to the left in Oklahoma politics, state lawmakers would be highly unlikely to pass such legislation anyway. If they did, an Oklahoma governor from either party would be unlikely to sign it.
“It’s not reactive. It’s proactive,” Kelsey said. “We are protecting agriculture and consumers into the future. … There is no immediate threat, right now, today, from HSUS in terms of a law that is impending, but we know they have an agenda and we know what that agenda is — they want to impede the production of meat.”
He said passage of the law will protect “the future for our kids and grandkids, as well as the future of agriculture and consumer choice.”
Buchanan said this is the reason the Farm Bureau, the Pork Council and the Cattlemen’s Association sought the strongest language possible — the “compelling state interest” standard.
“It certainly raises it to a higher legal hurdle, absolutely,” Buchanan said. “We believe in the rights of private property. This codifies private property rights. … We are talking about food production. We are talking about continuing to produce the most abundant, the highest quality and most affordable food supply this nation has ever seen.”
However private property rights are already well established in Oklahoma. The state also has a “right to farm” law on the books, which dramatically limits citizens’ ability to sue farm operators over issues including odors, dust and noise. ALEC came up with that model legislation also, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
That compelling interest hurdle is the problem, Edmondson said, because the Legislature can move the goalposts if 777 passes.
While the state question turns back the clock to agricultural laws and practices in place by 2014, it doesn’t stop the Legislature from pulling back more in the future.
Edmondson compared the possibility to the tax cuts enacted by the legislature in recent years. While tax increases require a supermajority of the legislature to enact, cuts only require a simple majority.
“It has a ratchet effect, Edmondson said. “There are no repealers in the bill, but there are no protections. So, 777 doesn’t repeal regulations, but the next session of the Legislature could.”
Another possible approach to further weakening regulations would be for the Legislature to lower the fines and drop infractions such as farm waste dumping to as low as $25. He warned that cockfighting, banned after a statewide vote in 2002, could be back on the menu for Oklahoma, with fines dropped to negligible amounts by a compliant Legislature.
“The Gamefowl Association, the cockfighters, are supporting 777. They see a window of opportunity,” Edmondson said.
Such matters, however, are small compared to the main concern, he said. The wide latitude opened up for corporate farming is likely to create a disastrous environment for pollution, food safety and other regulatory issues, he said.
Edmonson has claimed one of the major backers of 777 is Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, which owns massive pork operations in the Panhandle.
“In Harper, Eillis and Beaver counties, the largest hog producer out there — Smithfield has 45,000 sows at any given time—and it’s owned by China. These are not Oklahoma Farmers making decisions in the best interests of the people of Oklahoma,” Edmondson said.
In 2013, a Chinese company, Shuanghui International, acquired Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion, making it the largest producer of pork in the world, and the largest acquisition of an American company by the Chinese to date. At the helm of the company is a self-made billionaire, Wan Long, who also is a high-ranking official in the Communist Party’s national legislature, the National People’s Congress.
Shuanghui slaughters 15 million hogs a year in China, and the market there is increasing. However, the company has been accused of some shortcuts, including a 2011 scandal in which the company sold pork processed from pigs contaminated with a muscle growth chemical called clenbuterol, which causes headache, nausea and an irregular heartbeat in humans who consume the meat. Long is credited with successfully handling the crisis.
Interestingly, perhaps misleadingly, Biggs claimed during his talk that it is illegal for a foreign country to own property in Oklahoma. During the Norman forum question and answer session, a participant asked how the state would respond if flu were introduced from China into the swine herds of Oklahoma.
“I was waiting for someone to bring up the foreign government angle,” he said confidently. “In state statutes, it’s illegal for foreign governments to own and operate farms and ranches here in Oklahoma.”
He then explained the federal government would probably respond in the case of a flu epidemic.
How is it the largest producer of pork in the world, owned by a Chinese firm, with its president a member of the Communist Party, is able to own 45,000 sows in Oklahoma?
When asked about it, initially Buchanan echoed Biggs’ statement: it’s illegal, he said. However, when pressed on the subject, he said the answer is that they lease the operation in Oklahoma.
“You can petition the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture for a few exemptions. There are very few that are owned for agriculture,” Buchanan said. “Smithfield and Chinese pork, for example, don’t own the land the pork is produced on. They enter into contracts produced by that farmer.”
Are such foreign operations backing the passage of 777 with funding?
“I have no idea,” Buchanan said. “I have not contacted Smithfield.”
Buchanan’s organization, the Farm Bureau, is one of the major backers of 777, donating $100,000 to the bill’s Political Action Committee, State Farmers Care SQ 777.
However, another is the Pork Council, a 501c5 organization founded to advance the cause of pork producers. That group has given $76,586 to the PAC.
GoBank, a WalMart-owned banking company, has given $25,000 to promote 777’s passage, as did Farm Credit of Western Oklahoma, out of Woodward.
Oklahoma Ethics Commission reports only go back to June. Oklahomans will not see who spent exactly how much on passage until the law is either defeated or on the books.
Joe Maxwell, an attorney and farmer from Missouri opposing 777 in Oklahoma, is convinced the companies are investing heavily in its passage because billions are at stake.
“Actually, there are already 325,000 acres in Oklahoma that are owned by foreign companies,” he said, naming Japan and Brazil as well as China, although, there’s a catch. “Smithfield is a little different. It was bought and leveraged by the country of China. The architect of the acquisition is a member of the parliament. China controls the commerce as a country. That’s how Communism works. It is China that actually owns it. It’s more than just leased.”
The vegetarian menace
The stakes are also high for Biggs, the author of the bill which became State Question 777.
Biggs said he and the other supporters of the question must stop the statewide agricultural onslaught he says will be perpetrated someday by the Humane Society, The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Sierra Club.
Time is of the essence, he said. These and other activists want to require cattle to be transported in air-conditioned trucks, for chickens to live in expensive, posh cages, and eventually, for vegetarianism to be forced on consumers across the state by a besotted Oklahoma legislature.
In a Norman forum held by Leadership Oklahoma on state questions for the upcoming ballot, Biggs told the audience he was stunned to learn that such groups were getting legislation heard in committees at the state Capitol.
“What we saw at the capitol is a trend across the country to push animal-rights-type bills, these extremist type bills in California and the East Coast,” Biggs said. “I was completely shocked to see some of these bills were being introduced into committees and actually being considered here in Oklahoma.”
To combat these liberal groups, he said, he had to write the bill to remove the ability of future legislators, even from his own party, to pass laws regulating agriculture. Despite being a member of the ruling party in that very same Legislature, he does not trust them.
“The Oklahoma Legislature is losing the agricultural presence,” Biggs said. “What we are seeing is the other states are legislating the agricultural business out of business.”
Are Oklahomans really slated for forced vegetarianism? Edmondson scoffed at the idea those groups are about to accomplish anything in Oklahoma’s notoriously Republican-dominated legislature. He acknowledged organizations such as PETA do have interests in trying to restrict practices they believe amount to animal cruelty, but such legislation doesn’t have a chance in Slapout of passing in Oklahoma, he said.
“PETA pickets rodeos. But PETA couldn’t pass a kidney stone, with all due respect to my friends at PETA. This is not California,” Edmondson said.