agriculture, Environment, Legislature

Vote on hog “nuisance” lawsuits happened so fast, some lawmakers’ heads were spinning

He’s a magic man: House Speaker Tim Moore (Photo: NCGA)

I n his next career, House Speaker Tim Moore should become a magician. On Thursday afternoon, a procedural sleight of hand wound up fast-tracking a controversial — and possibly unconstitutional — agriculture bill through its second reading.

House Bill 467 would limit the amount of damages plaintiffs could receive in litigation against hog farms. Under the measure, citizens could not sue over “quality of life” issues, such as odor. Payouts would be limited to the decrease in a property’s fair market or fair rental value. The bill would not only clamp down on future lawsuits but also the 26 that are pending against Murphy-Brown, which owns Smithfield Foods. It is being supported by several industry groups, including the NC Pork Council and the NC Farm Bureau.

During the regular House session, the first five bills slated for their second or third reading were being voted on in order. Suddenly, Moore broke with protocol and skipped over the next 11 bills, quickly calling for a vote on HB 467. As a result, several lawmakers were confused about the bill they were voting on.

“Was there discussion or debate on the bill?” asked Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat, after the vote.

“There were no lights on,” replied Speaker Moore, meaning no lawmaker had signaled he or she would like to speak on the measure.

Even after several lawmakers dialed back their support, the bill passed 64-48. A third reading will be held on the bill, most likely on Monday. If it passes the full House, it will head to the Senate.

B ut even if HB 467 clears the General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper, its execution could be delayed by legal action. Two prominent Republicans, retired Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and former House Majority Leader Paul Stam both wrote letters to lawmakers stating that the bill was unconstitutional and could be struck down by the courts.

The News & Observer reported on the existence of the letters yesterday. In that report, Orr and Stam told the newspaper they had not been paid to write the letters, which they filed on behalf of the legal firms representing neighbors of industrialized hog farms.

“I would submit that this proposed legislation would … violate the N.C. Constitution in that it is specifically targeted at benefiting a particular industry,” Orr wrote. “It would appear to attempt by legislative action to favor one litigant over another and deny the plaintiffs the remedies to which they are currently entitled under N.C. law.”

Stam, a conservative Republican, agreed. He has historically favored private property rights and opposed eminent domain.

In his opinion, Stam wrote that “if passed into law, it would amount to an inverse condemnation of these property rights, not for a public use, but for the private purposes of a corporation. No matter how well-intentioned, it is not constitutional.”

Most states, especially those with strong agribusiness interests, have passed or introduced similar “nuisance bills.” Some have even enshrined Right to Farm bills in their state constitutions. And in Michigan, environmental groups performed their own magic with that state’s nuisance bill: including wind farms in the class of uses that could not be sued over quality-of-life issues.

But most of the time, big agriculture is seeking the special treatment. The National Conference of State Legislatures cited a Reuters article that quoted an Oklahoma cattle lobbyist calling for “extra protection” for agriculture, “so our farmers and ranchers can continue to produce affordable, abundant food.”

The lobbyist, however, did not mention protection for people living near these large farms and their waste lagoons.

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