Guest Opinion: What
Has Democrats Running Scared in CAFO Regulation?
By Francis Thicke
Proponents of reinstating local control of Confined Animal
Feeding Operations (CAFOs) approached this year’s legislative session with
great optimism. After years of being thwarted the by the Republican Party, we were
excited that this year the Democrats finally had control of both houses of the
legislature, as well as the Governor’s office. Our optimism stemmed from the Democratic
Party’s 2006 election platform, which called for local control.
Reestablishing local control—abolished by the legislature in
1995—would give counties authority over the siting of CAFOs, to allow
additional protections for the environment and communities beyond statewide
standards for CAFOs.
Our optimism was short-lived. Immediately after the fall
election, Democratic Party leaders—Patrick Murphy in the House and Michael
Gronstal in the Senate—began stonewalling, saying they would not allow local
control to come up for a vote in this year’s legislative session. Furthermore,
Governor Culver was completely silent on the issue, despite repeatedly being
asked to step up and honor his campaign pledge to work for local control.
Advocates for local control were unwilling to be brushed off
so easily by the Democratic Party. About a dozen groups from across Iowa,
ranging from farm organizations to environmental groups, banded together to
form the Coalition for Local Control. We held rallies for local control in the
state Capitol, talked to our legislators individually, made many phone calls
and sent numerous letters and emails. We identified a number of individual Representatives
and Senators supporting local control, but the Democratic leadership of both
houses steadfastly refused to allow local control legislation to see the light
Two bills that would have tightened CAFO regulations (but
would not have authorized local control) did make it through legislative
committees. In the House, HF 873 included provisions that would have increased separation
distances between CAFOs and residences and other sensitive areas, would have
lowered the threshold number of hogs in a confinement facility to trigger CAFO
regulation, and would have made the requirements more stringent for a passing
grade on the Master Matrix.
In the Senate, SF 550 made provisions for counties to review
CAFO permit applications and make recommendations for approval or denial to the
DNR, but did not give decision-making authority to counties.
Neither of these bills would have reinstated local control, but
they would have helped to protect Iowa citizens from the impacts of CAFOs on neighbors’
quality of life, health and property rights. However, the leadership of the
Democratic Party was unwilling to allow a floor vote on either HF 873 or SF 550.
In the aftermath of the legislative session, we are left
with several disturbing questions. Why did the Democrats renege on their
campaign promise to work for local control? Why was the Democratic Party
leadership unwilling to allow the legislature to vote on local control or other
forms of CAFO regulation?
What forces came to bear on the Democrats that had them
Why are we still left with the reality that although less
than one percent of Iowans have a vested interested in hog CAFOs, they hold
sway over all the rest of us with the legislature?
Some of the answers to those questions are obvious to anyone
familiar with the influence of big money in politics. First, the Iowa Farm
Bureau and other agribusiness groups—who lobby relentlessly for the privileges
of CAFO owners over the rights of ordinary citizens—made campaign contributions
to legislators of both parties and both legislative houses. That was the
carrot—with promise of more carrots to come.
Second, those same organizations employed an army of
lobbyists to incessantly hammer any legislator who dared consider voting
against their directive that there be no legislation regulating CAFOs. That was
the stick—with promise of a heavier stick being used on them in the next
election cycle if they stepped out of line.
Even though this session produced no legislation to protect
Iowa citizens from the out-of-control CAFO industry, members of the Coalition
for Local Control are not about to throw in the towel. We will redouble our
efforts next year. We are welcoming new allies and a broader base of
It’s a no-brainer that Iowa citizens need more protection
from CAFOs, and it’s only a matter of time before leaders in the legislature
and governor’s office realize they cannot ignore it any longer. Our state motto—displayed
on the Iowa state flag—plainly states the simplicity of our objectives: “Our
Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.”
Francis Thicke, with
his wife Susan, owns and operates a dairy farm near Fairfield, IA.