Fertile debate grows over Oklahoma ballot measure to provide constitutional protection for agriculture
The debates at the cash register on State Question 777 have gotten heated at the local food store Urban Agrarian in Oklahoma City's Farmers Market District.
“I've had people come in and ask me to just tell them about 777, and we've also had people come in and tell our staff ‘you're part of the problem in this country,' ” said Urban Agrarian founder Matthew Burch.
The store sells and promotes goods and produce from Oklahoma farmers. Burch said he personally opposes the constitutional amendment — and the business has anti-777 campaign signs displayed prominently around the shop.
However, Burch said he's tried to understand both sides of the issue.
“This concept of limiting our Legislature just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense,” Burch said. “But it seems like the arguments on both sides are based on hypotheticals.” Oklahoma farmers say the statewide ballot measure that would embed rights for agriculture in the state constitution is vital to protecting their industry, but they face opposition from a variety of groups.
Both sides of the debate on State Question 777 are well-funded and are engaged in a heated battle leading up to the November 8 election.
‘Compelling state interest'
SQ 777 is a constitutional amendment that would prevent Oklahoma lawmakers from passing legislation to regulate agriculture unless it has a “compelling state interest.”
The state question would not reverse any state statutes or ordinances enacted before Dec. 31, 2014, but any law regulating agriculture passed after that date would be subject to repeal.
‘Limiting family farms'
Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, could be considered one of the fathers of State Question 777. He sponsored the measure as a legislative referendum in the Legislature in 2015.
Biggs lives on a farm east of Chickasha with his wife and two daughters.
He said he authored the measure as a way to protect Oklahoma farmers from what he calls “feel-good” legislation to limit farming practices in the state at the behest of groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and the Sierra Club.
“They have proposed climate-controlled shelters for cattle and limiting the amount of time you can ride a horse in other states,” Biggs said. “They are successful in other states, but we don't want this legislation here and limiting family farms in Oklahoma.”
‘Solution in search of a problem'
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, chairman of the Oklahoma Stewardship Council, says those arguments don't hold water. The Stewardship Council is one of the lead groups opposing SQ 777.
“This is a solution in search of a problem — there is nobody attacking agriculture in Oklahoma,” Edmondson said. “It's been protected since statehood.”
Edmondson said the constitutional amendment could render state lawmakers unable to pass new laws to regulate new herbicides or pesticides in the future that could be harmful to people's health or the environment.
He likes to point out that the measure faces opposition that is much more expansive than just animal welfare and environmental groups.
Opponents include an array of diverse groups, ranging from the League of Women Voters to the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations. The Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, as well as several municipalities have passed resolutions opposing 777.
“It puts an incredibly high burden on any future regulation if it has anything to do with farming and ranching practices, and it's just not good government,” Edmondson said.
Idabel farmer Brent Bolen was raised in the poultry business. His father built his first chicken houses in southeast Oklahoma the year Brent Bolen was born.
Today, his company, Bolen Farms, is a contract poultry producer for Tyson Foods in McCurtain County.
Tyson owns the birds that Bolen raises, and the multinational company could just decide to move that production out of state or overseas if agricultural laws become too restrictive to raise chickens in Oklahoma, Bolen said.
It will be the smaller, family owned farming businesses — not Tyson — that will suffer if that happens, he said.
Bolen said he supports SQ 777 because it will help protect his poultry production plant.
“At the end of the of the day, they are going to figure out what it takes to produce a product that a consumer wants, whether that is in the United States or a third-world country,” Bolen said. “That leaves me kind of high and dry if I want to produce in southeast Oklahoma.”
Monte Tucker, a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Sweetwater, said he believes Oklahomans should support the measure to help keep food prices low in the state. Restrictive laws on how animals can be raised will raise the cost of food for Oklahomans at the grocery store, he said.
“If we do away with the farmers, a dozen eggs is going to cost what a Thunder ticket costs, and a Thunder ticket is going to cost a dollar,” Tucker said.
Bud Scott, campaign manager for the SQ 777 opposition group Oklahomans for Food Farm & Family, said the group is concerned about the legal implications if the measure passes.
“We feel like this is incredibly shortsighted to push for an amendment to the constitution to exempt an entire industry from new laws and regulations,” Scott said. “There are so many questions up in the air. It's very shortsighted, especially when there's no direct threat to agriculture to Oklahoma.”
While proponents of SQ 777 say the measure will help keep food prices low in the state, Scott said there is no proof for that claim.
“They say if it doesn't pass, the sky is going to fall, but there's absolutely zero proof that it's going to protect food prices,” Scott said. “Food prices are determined by the market.”
Plenty of financial support
The political action committee Oklahoma Farmers Care SQ 777 already has raised more than $1 million to support the state question this year, including $586,726 in the second quarter of the year, according to Oklahoma Ethics Commission documents.
The Pork Council, which represents pork producers in the state, is a large donor to Oklahoma Farmers Care.
The pork group has donated $76,586 to Oklahoma Farmers, as well as another $2,772 in in-kind donations, according to the Ethics Commission.
The Oklahoma Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. has donated $100,000 in support of SQ 777.
The measure also has financial support from the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and many of its chapters around the state, as well as independent farmers and ranchers.
The 777 opposition group Oklahomans for Food Farm & Family has launched a media blitz to get its message out.
In June, it spent $26,650 on billboard advertising in opposition to SQ 777, according to Ethics Commission filings.
Oklahomans for Food Farm & Family is primarily funded by the nonprofit social welfare group Oklahoman Rising Inc., campaign disclosure records show.
The group is classified as a 501(c)(4), nonprofit. Such nonprofits are sometimes called dark money groups, because they do not have to disclose their donors like political action committees.
Oklahomans for Food Farm & Family has a $16,022 contract with Oklahoma City television station KOCO to run anti-777 television spots in the weeks remaining before the election.
The Oklahoma Stewardship Council has the financial backing of the Humane Society of the United States, which has donated $17,500 in cash to the council, as well as $80,692 in in-kind contributions consisting of compensation and travel.
About the measure
•State Question 777 would create new constitutional rights for the agricultural industry. The constitutional amendment would also create a higher legal standard, called “compelling state interest” for the Oklahoma Legislature to enact new laws to regulate farming and ranching in the state.
•How it got on the ballot: The measure originated in the Oklahoma Legislature as House Joint Resolution 1012 in 2015.
•Argument in favor: Supporters it would protect farmers from restrictive laws that have been enacted in other states at the behest of animal welfare and environmental groups. They claim increased regulations on agriculture could increase food prices in the state.
•Argument against: Opponents of the measure argue it could leave laws regulating agricultural practices in the state open to legal challenge and give farmers dangerously broad constitutional protections.