An amended version of a controversial hog-farm-protection bill, HB 467, passed the Senate Agriculture Committee Tuesday afternoon and is now headed to the Senate Rules Committee.
As the INDY has previously reported, HB 467 would restrict the amount of money property owners could collect in nuisance lawsuits filed against agricultural operations, including hog farms. If passed, it would essentially cap the damages property owners could collect in nuisance lawsuits at the fair market value of their property, which critics say is often made lower by the presence of commercial farms.
A particularly contentious (and legally dubious) part of the bill would have restricted such damages even for current nuisance lawsuits—essentially nullifying twenty-six federal lawsuits pending against Murphy-Brown, the hog division of the powerful Smithfield Foods corporation. That provision was slashed in an amendment introduced in the House’s third reading of the bill in early April.
This afternoon, the Senate Agriculture Committee green-lighted an amendment brought forward by Senator Brent Jackson, a sponsor of the bill’s Senate version, that clarified that pending legal actions wouldn’t apply to HB 467.
Though the bill would no longer apply to current nuisance litigation, it would impact all future suits filed against agriculture operations, which opponents and environmental advocates say is just as worrisome.
Indeed, critics—including some senators at Tuesday’s committee meeting—have noted the bill’s likely harmful and disproportionate impact on the low-income and minority communities living near commercial hog farms. They also expressed concerns about the bill’s implications for private property rights.
“Is this bill going to have a disparate impact on families?” Democratic Senator Erica Smith-Ingram asked. “How are we going to deal with the disparate impact this will have on communities of color?”
Jackson argued that there was a need for the bill, citing “frivolous lawsuits” filed against farmers by lawyers from out of state. “The industry cannot sustain this,” he said.
Jackson—an industry-friendly farmer who represents Duplin, Johnston, and Sampson counties—may be concerned about the livelihoods of some of his constituents. But, like many of his colleagues in the House, he’s also gotten money from the very industry that would benefit from the legislation—more than $130,000, in fact, from the Murphy family (Murphy-Brown), Maxwell family (Goldsboro Milling, one of the biggest hog producers in the nation), Prestage family (another hog operation), Smithfield Foods, and the N.C. Pork Council.
Campaign finance information was collected at followthemoney.org and will be updated as more donations from Big Pork are discovered.