Once a year, the leaders of ag committees in the state legislature get together to talk. What they discuss will be the issues states will likely wrestle with in the coming year.
If you put the chairs of agriculture committees from 47 state legislatures in a room, what would they talk about?
Once a year, it happens. Legislative leaders gather at the Legislative Agricultural Chairs Summit and they discuss issues important to agriculture business and to rural communities. You can think of the weekend as a preview of what are likely to be the dominant issues in state legislatures over the coming year.
The latest meeting was in Orlando this past weekend. I was asked to be on a panel about migration. (The conference was managed by Carolyn Orr, who publishes the invaluable Agclips.) The legislators in our session were uniformly interested in what to do with rural towns that are losing people.
Most of the time, however, I listened, hoping to get a sense of what rural legislators were thinking. Here is what I heard:
Animal Rights ‘Activists’ The night before the conference began in earnest, legislators went to the Ringling Brothers circus. On their way out, the legislators passed by animal rights protestors who have taken particular affront to the circus’ treatment of elephants.
Coincidence or not, the first session of the conference was all about “responding to activists,” particularly of the animal rights persuasion. In fact, often during the two-day conference legislators returned to mull over (and decry) the attempts by these “activists” to set rules for treatment of animals and for agriculture in general.
The passage of Proposition 2 in California in 2008 has state legislators nervous. (Prop 2 set standards for animals raised in confinement.) They described efforts by the Humane Society of the United States to pass similar laws in other states. Luther Tweeton, an Ohio State University professor, gave a broad description of activists as “vegans,” “locavores,” “Luddites,” “organic proponents” and “anti-globalists.” The group is “not monolithic,” Tweeton said, “but they do share certain ways of thinking.” Tweeton said that agriculture (corporate ag especially) was the “greatest target of terrorist activity in the country.”
Legislators talked about the ability of the Humane Society to spend substantial amounts in states to promote Prop 2-like standards for confined-animal-raising operations. Rep. Ron Jelinek of Michigan said the Humane Society promised to spend “up to $250 million” on advertising to promote strict animal-raising standards in his state unless the legislature passed a law similar to California’s. “We caved,” Jelinek said, and the state legislature did pass regulations that set new standards for animals raised in confinement.
Ohio created an animal standards board in response to Humane Society pressure. Legislators seemed to agree that the state-based animal standards board was a preferable alternative to a California-like state board.
Meanwhile, more state legislatures are dealing with all manner of animal rights laws, especially restrictions on puppy mills. A statewide referendum on puppy mills has overwhelming support in Missouri, for example.
“This is ridiculous, what happened in California,” warned former Texas congressman Charlie Stenholm, “but it’s going to continue to happen.”
Rural Caucuses There was a good deal of discussion about how rural lawmakers can gain power in state legislatures that are growing increasingly urban. Georgia, Texas, Maryland and Louisiana all have rural caucuses in their legislatures.
Several legislatures said the caucuses helped rural lawmakers find common ground with urban legislators. In Texas, for example, rural and urban legislators worked together to find funding to pay for doctors who will move either to the inner city or to rural counties, said Rep. Warren Chisum.
Environment and Energy The legislators heard several speakers say that the push for a federal “cap and trade” bill on greenhouse gases was dead. A cap and trade bill has passed the House of Representatives but is currently stalled in the Senate.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regular greenhouse gases if the Congress doesn’t pass a bill.
Rural/Urban Division There was some discussion of the widening gap between rural and urban communities. Politics grows testier, and rural areas grow more Republican; Maryland Sen. Mac Middleton warned that “if the partisan spirit continues, rural areas could be left out.”
Regionalism Dallas Tonsager, under-secretary of rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said he expected the federal agency to announce a new program promoting regionalism. This has become a popular development concept. The theory is that counties working together will be more successful in their development efforts than if they plunge ahead without cooperating.
“We’ll be coming out soon with a proposal on regionalism,” Tonsager told the legislators. “I would urge you to look at what Iowa did when (USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack) was governor.”
In Iowa, Vilsack went so far as to propose reducing the number of counties from 99 to about 15, following the lines of community college districts.
There was more at the Orlando conference, of course. Former Texas congressman Charlie Stenholm worried that bans on horse slaughter would lead to an explosion in the number of orphaned horses. There was discussion of a reorganization of USDA and regulation of derivatives used by some ag companies. Legislators and speakers discussed whether farms would be included in climate change laws or regulations.
Looking back on the two days, however, there were two surprises.
The first was the amount of time spent discussing the potential for increased state regulation of animal breeding and raising facilities. This divisive issue preoccupied legislators, perhaps because these regulations, beginning in California, are so popular with largely urban voters, and because the laws are being enacted at the state level.
The second surprise was Tonsager’s announcement that Secretary Vilsack will attempt to force rural counties to work together as regions. That’s going to be interesting.