Hog bill critic says food giant trying to buy votes; food stamp ban questioned

Lobbyists in the Rotunda of Nebraska's Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 21, 2016 - 5:09pm

The Nebraska Legislature is debating a question about whether meatpacking companies may own hogs in the state, amid an undercurrent of accusations that one corporation is trying to buy a favorable vote from senators.

At issue is Nebraska’s ban on meatpacking corporations owning the hogs that they eventually slaughter. Supporters of the ban say it helps preserve independent family farms. But Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, chief sponsor of a proposal to repeal the ban, says it hasn’t worked. Schilz says the number of hog producers in Nebraska declined by 25 percent from 2007 to 2012, and it was the small operations that went out of business. "States with no packer bans are growing in hog production. Iowa, right next door, is number one in hog production, with nearly ten times the hog production of Nebraska. And South Dakota’s hog production grew 5 percent last year. The packer ban is not saving small farms and Nebraska is losing to our neighboring states who don’t have the bans," Schilz said.

Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis wants to keep the ban in place. He says he wants to prevent a replication in the hog industry of what’s happened in the chicken industry, where producers used to be independent, but now raise birds owned by large corporations. "The chicken people are locked into long-term contracts. They have confidentiality clauses. In some cases they can’t share things with anyone – with their banker, with their spouses, with other folks. And that is really chaining those farmers to a corporation. This country was built on the backs of agriculture. It was built on the backs of free farmers exercising their rights. We’re taking a big detour away from that if we pass this bill. We can say ‘no’ to corporate agriculture. If they want to sue, let them sue," Davis said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who also supports keeping the ban, said letting meatpackers own the hogs that farmers feed would hurt farmers. "When you say that that corporation owns the pigs, that corporation owns everything. The pig is everything. The corporation doesn’t care about your barns, your silos, because the corporation is going to tell you what to feed, how much to feed, when to feed, and may even provide it. And you are a serf. You are an indentured servant," Chambers said.

But Sen. John Stinner of Gering argued lifting the ban would enable farmers to avoid the risks of fluctuating prices for hogs and be able to make a living. "We talk a lot about removing barriers – government barriers. And when you look around at the surrounding states, they don’t have this barrier. They understand where the world’s at and what the demand looks like. This provides an opportunity for the family farmer to actually get involved in agriculture and not have the risk and pay for some of the improvements and growth that they need to have in order to have a sustainable income," Stinner said.

The debate is taking place amid an undercurrent of questions about campaign contributions and lobbying. John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, issued a press release saying Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest hog producer and a supporter of removing the ban, had recently made campaign contributions totaling more than $12,000 to 20 state senators. (To see Smithfield's contributions, click here).

"There’s no question that Smithfield is using its money to try to help buy a favorable vote on this bill," Hansen said.

Schilz, whose campaign committee got $1,000 from Smithfield, said he views contributions from people who agree with his views as an exercise of their First Amendment rights. "I don’t see anything wrong with it. It was all reported properly, obviously, because it came there. So we all have that ability. And Mr. Hansen himself, if he wants to, he could go and contribute as well," Schilz said.

In fact, the Nebraska Farm Political Action Committee, of which Hansen is the treasurer, has contributed a total of $1,700 to the campaigns of 12 current state senators. (To see Nebraska Farm Political Action Committee contributions, click here and here)."We make small campaign contributions. We’re one of the smaller PACs. And we do that as well. There’s no question about that," Hansen acknowledge.

But Hansen said his group’s contributions were generally made during election campaigns, whereas Smithfield’s were made this month, just prior to the debate. In fact, Smithfield’s were reported this month, but made in December, except the one to Schilz, which was in March.

Asked for a response to Hansen’s allegation that it was trying to by a favorable vote, Smithfield issued a statement saying it, like other businesses, participates in the election process in states where it does business. "Our PAC follows state law in giving and reporting, all of which is public through the Nebraska and Accountability and Disclosure Commission," the statement read. The company said it supports policies that are fair, and individuals who share its concerns about the industry’s future.

The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on the bill. Debate is scheduled to resume Friday.

Thursday afternoon, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on a bill by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld that would remove a ban on people convicted of selling or distributing drugs from receiving food stamps.

Among those testifying in support was Ronald Tillman of Lincoln. Tillman said he had been prescribed morphine for an injury, and made the mistake of giving some pills to a friend who asked for them. He pled no contest and went to prison. "I’ve already been punished. I served three years in prison for doing this. I was an addict at the time. I’ve been clean now for six years. I’m doing good, I have a budget. I have an apartment. I pay utilities. I try to pay my phone bill, all that. But it’s hard to do on $733 a month. It can’t be done. And without the Food Banks, I don’t eat," Tillman said.

Doug Weinberg, director of the Nebraska Health and Human Services Division of Children and Family Services, opposed the measure. "I have a stewardship for tax dollars earned by the hard work of our neighbors. The Department cannot support a bill with the potential consequence of the use of tax dollars to support those who choose to sell and distribute addictive drugs to our children and families," he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.




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