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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ind. Gov't. - "Does vote on mega farms stink?"

Kaitlin L Lange reports in today's Indianapolis Star:

When it came time last week to potentially make it easier for existing Indiana mega farms to expand, Rep. Sue Errington decided not to vote on the issue to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

The Muncie Democrat and her family are partners with Creighton Brothers, a large chicken farm in Warsaw. She said she recused herself from voting because she financially benefits from the farming business, also known as a confined animal feeding operation.

But a colleague with similar interests in a large hog farm in White County had no qualms about voting for the legislation.

Rep. Don Lehe, R-Brookston, said he didn’t see it as a conflict even though he owns Lehe Farms, which has a confined feeding operation permitted for up to 1,000 nursery pigs and 1,890 finishing pigs. He said House ethics rules allow him to vote on the legislation because it doesn't uniquely benefit him.

A government watchdog said the varied approaches to ethical issues at the Statehouse show the shortcomings of allowing lawmakers to police themselves.

"There's way too much self-enforcement when it comes to these conflict of interest laws for these legislators," said Julia Vaughn , policy director for Common Cause Indiana. "There's often this very wide degree of variation in how people interpret their own conflicts."

She said it seems obvious that legislation that likely loosens requirements for animal farms should be considered a conflict for any lawmaker who owns such a farm. * * *

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he doesn’t think it was necessary for either Lehe or Errington to excuse themselves from voting.

"With a citizens legislature, (there are) veterans who have to deal with veterans matters, we have real estate agents that are dealing with real estate matters,” Bosma said, “and as long as there is not a unique positive impact on that individual, our rules are very clear that it’s not a conflict, and they’re actually required to vote."

The House Ethics Committee, composed of lawmakers, exists to resolve ethics concerns among colleagues and offers advisory or formal opinions on ethical issues.

But Lehe said he did not consult the panel for guidance on House Bill 1494, which could make it easier for existing confined feeding operations to expand — and limits the number of people involved in such farms that would be required to disclose any past environmental violations.

Lehe’s vote came Wednesday during a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee, which endorsed the measure on a 7-3 vote. The legislation is now eligible for consideration by the full House. * * *

House Bill 1494 would seem to provide an occasion for lawmakers who own mega farms to take stock, Vaughn said.

The measure would allow owners to expand their feeding operations by using a permit amendment, instead of applying for a whole new permit. Usually when people apply for a confined feeding permit, they have to inform those living less than a half mile away. * * *

Under the measure, environmental reporting requirements also would be eased. CFO operators would only have to disclose environmental violations in the last five years of the owner and those directly in charge of the environmental aspect of the operation. Other senior management and board members no longer would have to disclose any of their environmental violations.

Vaughn said the legislation — and lawmakers' opposing views on who should be allowed to vote on it — show that current ethics laws are unclear and too open to interpretation.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 21, 2017 09:22 AM
Posted to Indiana Government