INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana legislators on Monday renewed debate about a proposed state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to hunt, fish and farm and place the issue before voters as a statewide referendum next year.
Indiana would join several other states adopting similar measures that supporters say are needed because wildlife hunting and modern agricultural practices are threatened by animal-rights activists. Opponents maintain the provision isn't needed and question singling out hunting and farming for constitutional protection.
The state Senate's agriculture committee voted 7-0 to send the proposal to the full Senate.
Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said he sponsored the amendment to protect the state's $8 billion a year in agricultural projects and more than 950,000 residents who hunt or fish each year.
Steele said animal-rights organizations are well funded and "can out-litigate most farmers."
"Fishing and hunting and farming are all part of our heritage in Indiana and are all under attack," Steele said.
Kim Ferraro, agriculture policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the group recognized the importance of agriculture but believed it was dangerous to give elevated legal protections to one industry above others.
Ferraro said environmental groups and others also had the right to raise concerns about water pollution and other problems that are caused by some farms.
"Simply because we may be voicing that concern doesn't mean we need to now protect against that opposing view by providing a constitutional protection for this industry," Ferraro said. "Why not coal mining? Why not steelmaking? Why not lawyering?"
The same Indiana proposal was approved by wide margins two years ago in the General Assembly, so if it clears the House and Senate this year it would go before voters in a November 2014 statewide referendum.
Seventeen states now have guaranteed the right to hunt and fish in their constitutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four states added the language last year — Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Wyoming. All the constitutional provisions except for Vermont have been added since 1996.
North Dakota voters approved constitutional protection for farming last year, making it the first state to do so, according to the legislative conference.
Bob Kraft, a lobbyist for Indiana Farm Bureau, told the state Senate committee that he viewed the proposed amendment as insurance for the state's farmers.
"I don't think there is an attitude among the citizens of Indiana now to denigrate the status of agriculture, to prohibit the sale of meat," Kraft said. "But one never knows what might be coming down the road sometime in the future, particularly when there are well-funded, aggressive organizations that are out to advance their mission of removing meat from the American diet."
Adding protections for hunting and farming to the state constitution could end up impeding the ability of state and local governments to have zoning restrictions and regulate drainage, said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.
"I think if we say it is a fundamental right then it's going to be very limited on whether we can do anything to control those issues," Lanane said.
Steele's proposal states that hunting, fishing and farming would remain subject to state laws and regulations. He said the Department of Natural Resources would be still able to set hunting seasons and that state agencies could still limit chemicals used by farmers.
"We're still a regulated society through our agencies and our laws," Steele said. "We're not doing away with that at all."
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