Lawmaker calls out House leadership, colleagues during farm bill debate
The annual farm bill continues to generate impassioned debate in the General Assembly, but Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, appears to have topped his colleagues with a 14-minute tirade Thursday before the bill won final House passage.Posted — Updated
"There are several truths need to be told in this body about this bill and about this body," he said.
The hog farm provision is in response to a $50 million judgment won in April by several Bladen County families against the production division of pork giant Smithfield Foods. It is the first of a couple dozen similar nuisance suits pending in federal court.
Various amendments adopted in recent days prevent anyone who lives more than a half-mile from the source of an alleged nuisance from suing, prohibit lawsuits filed more than a year after the farm begins operation or undergoes "a fundamental change" and bar punitive damages unless the farm operator has been convicted of a crime or civil enforcement action for violations related to the alleged nuisance.
The bulk of the $50 million award in the Smithfield case was punitive damages, although it was later slashed to less than $3 million under an existing state cap on punitive damages.
"This bill is moving like this because we're taking sides in a dispute," Blust said. "We know better than the court. We know better than the facts. We know better than the law. We're going to protect one litigant, and we're going to say to the other, 'You don't matter. You don't count.' It's because the one side has the ear of the powers that run this institution."
Smithfield Foods' political action committee has donated to several powerful lawmakers in the past year, including House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Rules Chairman David Lewis, House Majority Leader John Bell, bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, who shepherded the bill through the House.
Likewise, the North Carolina Pork Council PAC has donated to all six, as well as to other lawmakers, in the past year.
"It is about one giant corporation," Blust said. "[The bill's protections are] being sold to the public and to this body like it's Uncle Henry, Auntie Em, Dorothy, Toto and the three farmhand-type farms. That's not what it's about. It doesn't apply to farms like that."
Blust noted that farmers packed the gallery of the House on Wednesday during the chamber's first vote on the bill, which was added to the floor calendar less than two hours earlier. He said it's unlikely anyone representing hog farm neighbors knew the bill was being voted on.
"We accuse the courts of being biased and wicked and bad and [making] bad decisions. What about the way we operate?" he asked. "Is it right that one side gets to appear and pack the galleries and nobody from the other side gets any notice?
"We callously take away that right [for people to persuade their legislators], and then we criticize courts for being unfair," he continued. "We sound like me after Carolina loses to Duke or State – it had to have been the referees. Our side lost this lawsuit, so it must have been a bad court. That's a weak excuse."
Blust tried and failed three times Wednesday to amend the bill, including striking the section on punitive damages and trying to ensure people now being harmed by hog farms won't be precluded from suing once the bill becomes law.
During one of those efforts, Bell said Blust was "playing lawyer games."
"I'm a little taken aback that the politicians are casting stones at the lawyers," Blust said Thursday, calling bills moving so quickly that the public doesn't have time to respond and lawmakers themselves don't even know what they're voting on "cheap political tricks."
"What we do here is not a small matter, and people that really don't want to look at these bills and have the debates, there's still time till August to go ahead and take your name off the ballot, and your party can replace you. This is our duty," he said.
Reps. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, and Jeff Collins, R-Nash, interrupted Blust during his comments, saying that he was airing grievances instead of debating the bill.
"The way things are handled is pertinent to this bill," he responded. "We're the people's house and the people's legislature, and we ought to do business in a deliberative fashion that befits the trust that's been bestowed on us by the people. That ought to be an ironclad guarantee that we take seriously at all times."
Blust said the bill is inviting a legal challenge by depriving hog farm neighbors of their property rights, and he was trying to head that off with his amendments. He said it would be easier to head off lawsuits by requiring hog farms to use existing technology that caps waste lagoons, cutting down on the smell.
Before urging the House to reject the farm bill so the hog farm issue could be studied more thoroughly during the 2019 legislative session, he turned to Churchill for one final reference.
"An iron curtain has descended on this legislature, and it just will not let go. A few people call all the shots, and their will governs, and I know the members cannot afford to go against it," he said. "I hate that you can make good arguments, right on point, and somebody holds a thumb up or down, and that determines it. That's a very regrettable situation."
Moore then took the unusual move of addressing Blust's comments from the dais, saying he had "impugned integrity of the House."
All rules were followed in how the bill has been handled, Moore said.
"The gentleman and anyone else who's wanted to debate this bill has, in fact, had their opportunity to debate the bill. I would encourage the gentleman to give a little more thought to making such comments about the House in the future," he said.
The House then voted 65-42 to approve the farm bill. It heads back to the Senate for a final vote before going to Gov. Roy Cooper.