Bill pushed to stop any new agriculture rules Constitutional amendment would ban initiatives, legislative laws on industry

Amanda J. Crawford The Arizona Republic Feb. 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Hands off agriculture.

That's the message of a bill that would restrict the ability of the state Legislature and citizens to pass laws regulating the agriculture industry.

Aimed, in part, at quashing a citizens' initiative on farming practices that is opposed by the industry, the proposed constitutional amendment would go much further.

It would constitutionally bar legislators or citizens from passing agricultural laws, and experts worry it also could exempt the industry from broader state laws such as a state minimum wage law or even new environmental regulations. Critics are calling the measure absurd and radical and questioning the logic of putting a single industry out of reach of citizens or their elected representatives.

The proposal, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1035, introduced by Republican Sen. Jake Flake, prohibits any new laws or regulations that "limit or restrict the production of agricultural products" except in certain circumstances, including public health and safety and water use. Any new laws that do apply to agriculture could be enforced or adopted only by an unnamed state agency to be designated by the Legislature, unless lawmakers or citizens amend the state Constitution.

Flake and other supporters contend that agriculture is so complex, it shouldn't be regulated by people without a background in the subject. Flake said he is concerned about "special interests" or even local government attempts to stymie the agriculture industry, even as it moves forward into new and important areas, such as ethanol production.

"If we don't have some way to stop special-interest groups, we'll find ourselves with some real shortages in the state of Arizona, not just food but fuel, fiber, many different things," said Flake, a cattle rancher and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee. "If they are concerned enough, they can amend the Constitution."

Despite the criticism, the measure has sailed through two Senate committees, including Flake's, with bipartisan support and only minor changes. It is expected to be considered for preliminary approval by the Senate this week. If passed by the Legislature, the referendum would be placed on the November ballot.

Unprecedented move

"It scares the heck out of me," said Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. "It carves out an unprecedented exemption for agriculture. It seems like a radical departure from the way we have governed for a couple hundred years in this country."

The immediate impact of the proposal, if successful, might be to strike down a citizens initiative working its way toward the November ballot. Animal rights activists have collected more than one-third of the signatures needed to put a measure before voters to require pigs and veal calves be kept in enclosures large enough that they can stretch their limbs.

If voters approve both SCR 1035 and the Humane Farms initiative, as it is known, the constitutional amendment would nullify the initiative. Flake, whose district includes the only industrial pig farm likely to be affected by the Humane Farms ballot measure, said he might consider amending his bill to go into effect after November's election. As it is now written, it would nullify any laws passed after Jan.1, 2006.

Cheryl Naumann, president of the Humane Society of Arizona and chairwoman of the Humane Farms campaign, said everyone should be concerned about this bill, even if they don't support her initiative. If legislators can carve out an exemption from future regulation for one special interest, what is to stop them from giving similar concessions to other industries or from blocking legislation and citizen initiatives on other key issues and "taking the voice of the people away"?

"Next time is it hands off children's issues, hands off environmental issues, hands off growth and development issues or health care issues? All of those causes have people passionate on both sides and all of their voices deserve to be heard. What's next?" Naumann asked.

Flake, who said he introduced the bill at the behest of industry representatives, said legislators would have some influence over agriculture because they would designate an agency that would be allowed to adopt limited regulation.

No citizens' initiatives

Sen. Marsha Arzberger, D-Wilcox, who is a co-sponsor of the bill and has a background in farming and ranching, said she believes the measure should be amended so that it does not bar the Legislature from passing laws. But she said she signed on as a sponsor to stop citizens' initiatives, such as Humane Farms and one in a California county that blocked the use of bioengineered seeds.

"A group of citizens should not be doing any initiative on any industry, especially an industry they don't understand," she said.

A representative of the pork industry echoed those sentiments.

"Should people who live in Phoenix be able to make up a law to govern agriculture?" asked Tom Miller, executive director of the Arizona Pork Council, which has five members statewide, including the one major pig farm. "Do people in Phoenix know better than people in agriculture?"

Influential state lobbyist Bas Aja, director of governmental affairs for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, called the bill his "brain child" but denies the intent was to stop new regulation or the Humane Farms initiative. He said it was intended to elevate the importance of the industry and put regulation under a single agency. After being questioned by The Republic about the bill's ramifications, Aja said he would work to get it amended.

Proposal called 'nutty'

Constitutional expert Paul Bender, a professor of law at Arizona State University, called the proposal unwise and downright "nutty." He warned that if it is passed it would not only strip citizens of a fundamental right to pass initiatives in this area, it also could affect the lives of Arizonans far into the future. A constitutional amendment is difficult to overturn and cannot be declared unconstitutional by a court, although he expects it would generate massive amounts of litigation.

"Lots of laws that you and I would not think of as agriculture laws limit and restrict the production of agricultural products," he said, pointing to things like a state minimum wage law or even the speed limit. And he said some environmental and water-quality laws may not be covered by the few exceptions in the bill.

"How do you know what laws you might need to pass five years from now?" he asked. "This is an industry trying to exempt itself from regulation. Any industry that can get legislators to exempt them from all future regulation, with some limits, must have lots of power."

Reach the reporter at amanda.

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