Three Southeast Oklahoma Legislators Explain Why They Oppose SQ 777:
Proposal Fails to Define ‘Compelling State Interest,’ Contains Retroactive Provision, Concerns about Water Rights
Three members of the state House of Representatives came out against the so-called “right to farm” proposal Monday.
Reps. Brian Renegar and Donnie Condit, both McAlester Democrats, and Rep. James Lockhart, a Heavener Democrat, expressed multiple concerns about State Question 777.
“I have served on the Agriculture Committee in the House of Representatives for all 10 years I’ve been in the Legislature, and I consider myself ‘an ag guy’,” Renegar said.
“When people come to me and say they are voting this way or that on 777, their comments generally boil down to ‘the corporate farms are for 777’ or ‘the humane animal groups are against it’,” Renegar related. “I tell people to just set those notions aside and simply read the language” for State Question 777.
The proposed constitutional amendment is “seriously flawed,” Renegar asserted, because a “compelling state interest” is not only not defined in the original bill from which State Question 777 was derived, “It is not defined anywhere in state law. Even some of the 777 proponents admit this.”
Since “compelling state interest” is not defined, Renegar said, “We all know a judge will decide what that means. Will it be a judge from drought-stricken western Oklahoma or a judge from water-rich southeastern Oklahoma?” SQ 777 is “an invitation for litigation.”
Condit said one of the principal reasons he opposes SQ 777 is because it contains a wrinkle — an unusual date is embedded in the measure.
SQ 777 would add a Section 38 to Article II of the Oklahoma Constitution. Among its provisions, Section 38 would decree, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to modify or affect any statute or ordinance enacted by the Legislature or any subdivision prior to December 31, 2014.”
“Now, why would the proponents of a constitutional amendment choose a retroactive effective date?” Condit asked.
Perhaps because of House Bill 1514, which imposed some tougher licensing requirements on concentrated animal feeding operations, he said. HB 1514 was signed by the governor on April 21, 2015, and became effective Nov. 1, 2015.
The retroactive effective date of SQ 777 “doesn’t pass the smell test,” Condit said.
Similarly, Renegar recalled that in 2012 a Native American tribe in Oklahoma wanted to grow castor beans commercially. The Legislature passed an emergency bill to prohibit it because one of the by-products of the castor bean is a powder in the husk which is toxic to humans. “That substance is ricin,” Renegar said. “If the language of SQ 777 had been in place when the Legislature passed the castor bean bill, it would have hindered, if not prohibited, this vital piece of legislation.”
Advocates of SQ 777 have said the measure is needed because of pressure exerted by animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Renegar said he, too, harbors “some ill feelings” toward animal rights groups “because of their treatment of me after I filed a bill to keep them from collecting money in Oklahoma from advertisements aired in the name of helping animals – only to ultimately spend a large amount of those donations on political agendas.”
Lockhart expressed similar feelings. Lockhart is a calf roper, his wife is a meat cutter, and they raise cattle, horses and goats. Both Lockharts said they dislike the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) “intensely”, yet both are “totally opposed” to SQ 777.
Animal rights groups “have been a thorn in the side of rodeo contestants and slaughter facilities for years,” Representative Lockhart said, “but the 149 members of the Legislature are very conservative and very friendly toward agriculture. So to say that animal rights groups can go to the State Capitol and get legislation passed is simply not true. HSUS, for one, is not well-thought-of” at the Capitol. “We don’t need State Question 777 to protect agriculture,” Lockhart said.
Renegar concurred. If one of the goals of SQ 777 is to keep animal rights groups out of Oklahoma, “It will fail,” he predicted. “These types of groups rarely achieve their goals via state legislatures. Instead, they do so through initiative petitions that, for example, produce the many propositions that California has on its ballot. This is further reason to keep trust and positive communication between consumers and ag producers.”
Lockhart also expressed his concerns about what effect SQ 777 might have on water rights, “particularly the never-ending proposals to transfer water out of southeastern Oklahoma.” The Five Civilized Tribes all oppose SQ 777 “due to environmental concerns, particularly about water,” Lockhart said.
Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy, for example, opposes SQ 777. Large agricultural corporations, particularly foreign ones, support the measure because they “don’t want restrictions on what they do with our water,” ORWP contends on its Internet website.
Other opponents of SQ 777 are Best Friends of Pets, the Choctaw Nation, the HSUS, the Cherokee Nation, the Humane Society of Tulsa, the Chickasaw Nation, the Oklahoma Alliance for Animals, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Oklahoma Animal Welfare League, the Seminole Nation, the Sierra Club, the Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Tulsa SPCA, and the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
Renegar noted that the federal Environmental Protection Agency allows the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality to regulate the environment in this state, just as the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture to regulate Oklahoma’s agricultural industries. With SQ 777 restricting ‘political subdivisions’ from adopting regulations pertaining to agriculture, “this is inviting the EPA, USDA and the federal Food and Drug Administration to have more of a presence in Oklahoma,” Renegar contended.
“Trust me: The state Ag Department and the DEQ are kinder and gentler agencies than the EPA, USDA and the FDA,” Renegar said. “State agencies are responsive to state legislators. I realize 777 is a push for less state regulation. I get this. But we need to be careful what we wish for…”
Finally, Renegar refuted a claim purportedly made by an ag industry executive, apparently in an attempt to scare farmers and ranchers into voting in favor of SQ 777.
An Oklahoma Farm Bureau official “claims there is legislation that would require a veterinarian to be present to anesthetize any farm animal that is to be castrated or dehorned,” Renegar said. “There is no such law on the books, and it’s highly doubtful that any such proposal could ever get through the Legislature,” the veteran lawmaker said.