Nebraska lawmakers kicked off a debate Wednesday on a "right to farm" measure that would restrict the state's power to regulate agriculture.
The proposal by Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell would enshrine the right to "engage in farming and ranching practices" in the Nebraska Constitution if voters approve it in November. Doing so would prevent lawmakers from passing new agricultural regulations without a "compelling state interest."
Kuehn, a veterinarian and livestock producer, said he proposed the constitutional amendment as a pre-emptive strike against out-of-state animal welfare groups, even though there's no current threat.
"There are individuals, activist groups and others who have no regard for what the facts and truth are, but simply have an agenda that says, 'We will impede agriculture in whatever way possible,'" Kuehn said. "It's not going to be with a broad sword and bold strokes. It will be incrementally — one regulation, one law at a time."
Sen. David Schnoor, a farmer from Scribner, said the amendment would give producers "an added layer of protection" on top of agriculture industry groups and farm-friendly state officials.
Opponents, including some farm groups, have said the measure is too vague and broad. The Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation has said the measure could have unknown, unintentional consequences and argued it creates a distraction from other issues such as property taxes.
North Dakota voters approved a similar measure in 2012, followed by Missouri in 2014. Oklahoma voters will consider a "right to farm" amendment in the November general election. Nebraska lawmakers must approve the proposed amendment before it can appear on the statewide general election ballot in November.
In 2012, Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to guarantee hunting, fishing and animal-harvesting rights in the state constitution.
Some urban senators questioned the need for the measure, arguing Nebraska doesn't have special constitutional protections for firefighters, nurses, teachers or other professions. They also argued that, because agriculture is Nebraska's largest industry, outside groups pose no real threat.
"We're chasing after something that doesn't really exist," said Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said any attempts to restrict agriculture would almost certainly die in the Legislature.
"It would be pretty insane not to support the ag industry in Nebraska," Morfeld said.
Supporters have also proposed an amendment that would allow state and local governments to continue regulating groundwater. The amendment also makes clear that the ballot measure would not apply to any state or local law passed before Dec. 31, 2015, or any laws passed to comply with federal environmental regulations.