An effort to enshrine farming and ranching rights in the Nebraska Constitution hit a major roadblock Tuesday when a legislative committee rejected a measure to place it on the November general election ballot.
The proposed constitutional amendment (also known as measure LR378CA) failed to muster enough support to advance out of the Agriculture Committee, with some senators raising concerns that the measure was too broad.
Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo, the committee chairman, said lawmakers need more time to study the issue and he doesn't plan to allow another vote on it this year.
The proposal would have guaranteed the right to "engage in farming and ranching practices" and prevented the Legislature from passing new regulations without a compelling state interest. 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.
Committee members voted 2-2 to advance the measure for debate in the full Legislature, while three other senators abstained. They then voted on whether to kill the proposal, but only mustered two votes to do so, while four senators voted against the motion to indefinitely postpone it and one abstained.
Critics said the measure could have prevented lawmakers from even defining what constitutes farming and ranching. Animal welfare groups argued that the measure might be construed to apply to puppy mill owners and cockfighting ring organizers who want to shield themselves from regulations.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a well-known animal welfare advocate, said he would have mounted a filibuster against the proposal had it made it to the floor.
"This is one of the nuttiest things I've ever seen," Chambers said.
The proposal by Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell comes four years after Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to enshrine hunting, fishing and animal-harvesting rights in the state constitution. The farming and ranching ballot measure had 15 co-sponsors in the Legislature, nearly all from rural districts.
Kuehn said he introduced the measure to protect the industry from what he sees as emotionally charged campaigns against modern agriculture. Kuehn said it could ensure that no one tries to outlaw genetically modified organisms, antibiotics for farm animals, pesticides for crops, and other common farming practices.
But Johnson said producers are already protected by Nebraska's farm and ranch lobbying groups as well as We Support Agriculture, an industry coalition created to fight out-of-state animal welfare groups.
"Nebraska has done a pretty good job building a wall to protect agriculture," Johnson said.
Nebraska already has a right-to-farm policy in state law, but supporters of the amendment said placing it in the state constitution would make it harder to overturn.