by Patrick B. McGuigan
After months of debate at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, a “Right-to-Farm” amendment will face popular consideration in an upcoming statewide referendum.
Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, sponsored House Bill 1012, a measure which ultimately garnered strong bipartisan support (including from House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City) – but only after lengthy consideration in the Legislature.
In comments sent to The City Sentinel, Biggs – vice chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee — said, “Agriculture is a central component of the Oklahoma economy and critical to local rural communities. We simply are not going to let anyone come in and harm our agricultural producers. We have a right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness and that includes farming.”
A GOP summary in April concluded the amendment “would allow Oklahomans to vote to amend the state constitution to protect citizens’ rights to engage in farming and agriculture in all cases unless prohibited because of a compelling state interest.”
After lengthy debates throughout this spring’s legislative process the proposal sailed through the House of Representatives on an 85-7 vote held April 29. Seven representatives did not vote.
After the measure cleared the Senate on a 39-6 vote, Oklahoma Farm Bureau President Tom Buchanan commented, “This gives more protection to Oklahoma agriculture so we can continue to be a major contributor to the Oklahoma economy.”
Buchanan praised legislative sponsors for “shepherding this legislation through the legislative process. … It was a spirited debate and all voices were heard as we saw broad support for this measure all across the state.”
At one point, State Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, tried unsuccessfully to amend the measure to make the referendum a “county option” question. She argued the amendment otherwise could interfere with local laws.
Professor Kurt Hochenauer at Okie Funk, a political blog, said it was ““a bill that could eventually make Oklahoma an even more unsafe place to live.”
Opponents advanced steadily arguments against the proposal, making notable points.
The state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, printed a letter from the editor by reader Suellen Crenshaw, who said opponents “hit the nail on the head when they point out that the bill would allow large foreign corporations to destroy and pollute Oklahoma land with impunity. Don’t let the Farm Bureau confuse you — this bill doesn’t support Oklahomans. This bill would put the interests of big industries over Oklahoma citizens, including small family farmers. Contrary to what those corporations and the trade groups that represent them might have you believe, they don’t care about farming heritage, animal welfare or protection of the environment.”
The strongest assault on the amendment probably came from state Democratic party chairman Wallace Collins, a former member of the state House. He declared in a press release sent to The City Sentinel and other news organizations that the “’Right to Farm’ is going to end up being just like ‘Right to Work’ where it is promoted to protect the rights of Oklahomans but in reality it only protects big businesses and their ‘rights’ to abuse the system for their own benefit.”
Collins asserted, “The proposal is so vague that not only is it confusing to legislators and voters, but it could also lead to a legal challenge in the court system.
“Oklahoma is considered a ‘rural’ or ‘ag-friendly’ state, and I can confidently say that the majority of Oklahomans support our local, family farms; however, what people don’t understand about this bill is that it is based off of model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
“This would do away with the rights of local municipalities to govern what’s right for them and their property owners, as well as open the doors to allow big agriculture corporations, like Monsanto and Cargill, to have free-reign to do whatever they want.”
He declared, “This legislation is not protecting the ‘right to farm’ of local farmers and ranchers but is instead promoting the ‘right to harm’ our communities, our environment, and the rights of our citizens.”
Response to Collins’ comments seemed immediate – and much of it came from fellow Democrats.
In a joint statement, rural House Democrats said they were grateful as the measure moved through both chambers of the Legislature with bipartisan backing.
Their statement said rural Democrats “have always stood for rural Oklahoma and against outside interests telling farmers and ranchers how to run their operations. Operations that not only provide food and fiber for Americans but for the world. Operations that are the envy of people across the globe.”
Democrats backing the measure at final passage included Ed Cannaday of Porum, Condit of McAlester, Chuck Hoskin of Vinita, James Lockhart of Heavener, Eric Proctor of Tulsa, David Perrryman of Chickasha, Brian Renegar of McAlester, and Ben Sherrer of Chouteau.
They promised “to educate our great state as to the need for this constitutional amendment.”
The House Republican Rural Caucus also strongly backed the measure.