Monday, January 29, 2007

The World Herald's Big Lie

by Ryan Anderson
I really envy our neighbors in the Centennial State for enjoying the services of their very own Colorado Media Matters. For such a small state our press corps sure produces a lot of bullshit and our small (but growing) community of volunteer bloggers just isn't sufficient to keep up with it all. That said, I just couldn't let this editorial* in Saturday's Omaha World Herald go without comment:
Is the apparent end of Initiative 300 going to lead to hordes of corporate interests swooping into Nebraska, snatching up farmland and radically changing the economic dynamics long shaping the state's ag sector? Not likely.

David Aiken, an agricultural law specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was on the mark in a Friday World-Herald article. In many cases, he said, the demise of I-300 would mean that changes in land ownership likely would involve family members wanting to form corporations or limited liability companies (LLCs) to protect their nonfarm assets.

As the article stated: "Most concerns about Initiative 300, Aiken said, were from family members who inherited farms and wanted to form LLCs."
Now, to be fair, the OWH doesn't get it all wrong here. Nebraska's corporate farming ban does restrict the ability of farmers to work their land under the protection of a limited liability corporation... unless that corporation is majority owned by family members who actually work on the farm. That is, family farmers are unaffected so long as the family controls just over 50% of the LLC. The World Herald's claim that such restrictions actually hurt small farmers is both dishonest and disgusting.
Mega-hog farms are another main concern of I-300 supporters. But that legitimate issue is addressed by another development that has arisen through the normal course of events: the adoption, in nearly every Nebraska county, of strict zoning rules against large-scale hog confinements.
That the OWH vocally supports county zoning regulations admirably puts them one step behind the corporate lobbyists they've stolen their rhetoric from, but their argument here is lacking. Zoning regulations help communities place large farming operations appropriately. I-300 serves a different purpose entirely; confronting the critical issue of liability by requiring investors to operate under the same tax rules as most farmers. That's called 'leveling the playing field', making sure our state's tax and legal codes are working for our family farmers, not against them.

Protecting rural American values means protecting rural America... it amazes me how many opinion makers and muckrakers refuse to make that connection. And Initiative 300 is rural Nebraska's first and greatest defense.

This last point was demonstrated dramatically in a 2002 study (PDF) that compared 433 counties classified as "agriculturally dependent" and concluded that counties in states with anti-corporate farming laws generally had "less families in poverty, lower unemployment and higher percentages of farms realizing cash gains". States with the most restrictive corporate farming laws -Nebraska included- fared even better in terms of cash gains and unemployment.

Essentially, the World Herald's argument that "Initiative 300 has proved a hindrance to Nebraska's farm economy" represents just another attempt to make Nebraska a better place to do business by making it a worse place to live. From a quality of life perspective, the merits of I-300 as public policy are undisputed.

As a matter of law, however, things look pretty bleak.

The Friends of the Constitution deserve a great measure of gratitude from all Nebraskans for their tireless defense of Initiative 300, and Attorney General Jon Bruning certainly deserves credit for exhausting all options for appeal. There appears to be little hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the lower courts' decision, but there may still be a chance to save Initiative 300 if only we can bring this fight to Congress.

The current legal battle revolves around the "Dormant Commerce Clause", which reserves for the federal government the exclusive right to regulate interstate commerce. However, established legal precedent suggests that Congress can elect to delegate this responsibility to the states, as it did in 1945 by granting states the right to regulate the insurance industry (see theMcCarran-Ferguson Act). Theoretically, Congress could pass a law delegating states the authority to regulate corporate ownership of farmland, and I-300 would be saved.

Considering the wealth of campaign contributions from big agribusiness and the vocal opposition of Chamber of Commerce lobbyists, there remains a pretty wide gulf between theory and practice. But I can't help noticing that six of the nine states with corporate farming bans have Senate races coming up in 2008 -Nebraska included. If we lobby this idea, if we really push it, we may just be able to offer our candidates and senators (from both parties) a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate just how deeply dedicated they are to "protecting rural American values".

*Unfortunately, this editorial does not appear to be available on the new version of

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Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

This is an issue that goes beyond Nebraska's state constitution - our federal elected officials should tell us where they stand on defending I-300 in the halls of Congress.

Unfortunately, I think we'd probably be better off lobbying Sen. Tom Harkin in Iowa than the representatives we have if we wanted to see any real action. But, regardless of the outcome, Nebraska's last generation of true family farmers deserves to hear their death sentence read from the lips of their own politicians - seeing once and for all who really doesn't give a damn about their interests outside of campaign slogans and easy soundbytes.


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