Legislators wallow in special interest override of governor’s veto

Legislators wallow in special interest override of governor’s veto

Leaders in the N.C. General Assembly seem to exist in the permanent state of an editorial cartoon.

If so, picture the 74 House lawmakers and 37 Senate lawmakers—mostly Republicans, a few Democrats—who voted this week to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the N.C. Farm Act of 2018 as musclebound boars, holding clothespins to their snouts, wielding a judge’s gavel they are wholly unqualified to hold.

As Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg reported, this odiferous bill, now a law, brazenly aims to protect potentially negligent North Carolina meat processors from reaping what they may sow.

It all but quashes future lawsuits to protect the world’s largest pork producer, Murphy-Brown, and its parent company, Smithfield Foods, at the expense of rural neighbors who may be weary—as people are wont to be—of unmoored hog feces, circling vultures, omnipresent stench, rumbling trucks and putrid pig carcasses.

It’s a bill as noxious and rife with due process questions as any to emerge in this frantic and furtive, campaign-mode session, and that’s saying something.

Lawmakers set us on this course after a jury’s spring decision to award $50 million to 10 hog farm neighbors, an award later chopped to a laughable $3.25 million to comply with a state cap on punitive damages. It’s unclear whether legislators fully understand that rocky course, as Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, elucidated Wednesday.

Blust—whose eloquent dissection of the bill two weeks ago reminds us all that party politics should come second to people—warned state leaders today that we would surely be here again, discussing new carve-outs for special interests grasping at opportunities to stack the law in their favor.

Meanwhile, Rep. Billy Richardson, a Fayetteville Democrat, grumbled in a last-ditch effort Wednesday that “democracies cannot have it both ways.”

“You cannot sit there and condemn other countries about not having due process law and turn around and in the same breath not have due process.”

Both of these lawmakers are correct.

North Carolina’s farmers, and the pork industry, are a part of this state’s economic and cultural fabric. And North Carolinians and their policymakers have shown, time and again, that they’re willing to treat them as such.

But this isn’t about respect and dignity for the typical North Carolina farmer, as supporters of this special-interest broadside would have you believe. This is a boon for powerful hog interests—Goliath chewing on David’s bones—couched in the type of ‘yea or nay’ rhetoric that politicians are fond of these days.

Regardless of the invective and the hot tempers that sometimes colored this debate, a vote against this bill is not a vote against farmers. This is about simple fairness, equality and our willingness to respect our own neighbors, whether they’re hog farmers or residents who simply want to live without the smelly lagoons that make mock of property rights.

In some ways, legislators’ bullish stance on hog farms mirrors North Carolina’s long-documented failure to care for the neighbors of local landfills, many of them poor, people of color beset not just by odors but by myriad health concerns.

Wednesday’s House vote on the Farm Act of 2018 effectively pronounces that North Carolina is doubling down on its environmental injustice. That, in this matter, restitution belongs only to a privileged few, those few whose deep pockets purchased apparently limitless goodwill with the lawmakers of this state.

Arguments to the contrary have landed bizarrely off base.

Take Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County farmer and leading Senate Republican who crafted the bill this year and unloaded it with scant public input just as about a dozen nuisance lawsuits make their way through federal courts:

“It’s a sad day when the Governor of North Carolina chooses to stand up for out-of-state trial lawyers over our family farmers, and this veto has left our rural communities wondering where the Roy Cooper who grew up in rural Nash County has gone,” Jackson said in a statement after Cooper’s veto Monday.

What hogwash. Even if Jackson believes in this misguided defense and these faceless, boogeyman lawyers, his time—and ours—would be better spent considering those North Carolinians forgotten by this new law.

Those would be the neighbors of North Carolina’s sprawling hog farms, the residents who deserve to have their cases heard, not dismissed long before they’re put to paper.

Even if these neighbors littered our courts with so-called “frivolous” lawsuits that hamstring the state’s billion-dollar hog industry (they’re not), even if their stories of stench and flies and putrid hog carcasses were baloney (they’re not), even if a fair court process scorches some locally-contracted farmers (the suits are aimed at corporations, not farmers), these neighbors are residents of this state too.

And lawmakers should be more in thrall to these North Carolinians, the rural voters who placed many of them in office, than they are to the powerful hog industry leaders who would line their campaign accounts.