- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A proposal that would restrict the Nebraska Legislature’s power to regulate agriculture advanced out of a legislative committee on Wednesday, one day after that panel’s members rejected it.

The committee abruptly reversed course and voted 5-2 to send it to the full Legislature for debate, despite a senior senator’s promise to block it.

The proposed constitutional amendment would guarantee the right to “engage in farming and ranching practices” and prevent the Legislature from passing new regulations without a compelling state interest. North Dakota voters approved a similar measure in 2012, followed by Missouri in 2014. Oklahoma voters will consider a “right to farm” amendment in the November general election.

Nebraska lawmakers still must approve the proposed constitutional amendment before it can appear on the statewide general election ballot in November.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha warned his colleagues on the Agriculture Committee that he will mount a filibuster to keep the measure from passing. Chambers, an outspoken animal welfare advocate, noted that Nebraska’s measure was copied from Oklahoma’s “right to farm” proposal and argued that it has no place in the state constitution.

“If you send it out now, I’m going to stop it,” Chambers said.

The proposal that advanced Wednesday now includes an amendment that would allow state and local governments to continue regulating groundwater. The amendment also makes clear that the ballot measure would not apply to any state or local law passed before Dec. 31, 2015, or any laws passed to comply with federal environmental regulations.

The proposal that was rejected on Tuesday did not include those changes. Sen. Jerry Johnson, the committee chairman, said he agreed to schedule another vote after he received calls from state and local water regulators who supported the amended version of the proposal. Johnson abstained from voting, saying he’d prefer that lawmakers study the issue before taking action.

Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said the measure doesn’t define “agricultural technology,” which opens the door to a variety of unintended consequences.

Farmers could argue that driving an overweight tractor over a bridge or beating a dog is a form of constitutionally protected agriculture, he said. If state officials discover that a new hormone used on pigs is running into rivers and killing fish, he said, the amendment could prevent lawmakers from outlawing it.

The proposal by Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell comes four years after Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to enshrine hunting, fishing and animal-harvesting rights in the state constitution. The farming and ranching ballot measure had 15 co-sponsors in the Legislature, nearly all from rural districts.

Kuehn has said he introduced the measure to protect the industry from what he sees as emotionally charged campaigns against modern agriculture. Kuehn said it could ensure that no one tries to outlaw genetically modified organisms, antibiotics for farm animals, pesticides for crops, and other common farming practices.

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The amendment is LR378CA.

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