Friday, March 12, 2010

Dairy farms asking for one break too many?

In a stroke of wisdom, Idaho lawmakers gave thumbs down to legislation intended to criminalize hiring of illegal immigrants as well as, among other things, prohibit cities from declaring themselves to be "sanctuaries" for illegal immigrants on the lam.

However, the nix was for the wrong reason.

Agricultural lobbyists, especially dairy feedlot representatives, argued that punishing employers for hiring illegals is unfair, since, as one lobbyist claimed, "People do not flock and stand waiting in line for work as milkers in dairies." Maybe the reason worker applications are scarce is that dairies can attract illegal aliens quicker than U.S. workers because of bottom-dwelling wages.

As if one break from the state Legislature wasn't enough, CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) went back to the well with lawmakers and asked for more special treatment.

They want to keep their operations secret. Specifically, they want to bar the public from state Department of Agriculture data on how well CAFOs are cleaning up their waste and prohibit public access to environment-based details of CAFO waste methods.

The CAFO operators' passion for as much secrecy as they can legislate is understandable. Feedlots are the source of rancid smells and toxic runoff into the water system. The more the public knows of inefficient CAFO systems, the more the demand for environmental regulations.

And what's the feedlot rationale for secrecy?

The industry claims individual feedlot operators need to keep their cleanup methods secret from competitors, as if manure disposal ranks alongside such things as the design of a high-speed computer microchip.

This is pure snake oil. If feedlot lobbyists can convince legislators to enact legalized secrecy, which industry is next with smoke-and-mirror pleas to prohibit regulators from releasing details? Electric, water and communications utilities might like rate hearings and data off limits to the public. Industries regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality might want their violations kept confidential.

The nation is still reeling from the consequences of lax or nonexistent regulation of key financial industries because lobbyists persuaded Congress and agencies to turn the other way. Think Bernie Madoff and Enron as simplified examples.

Legislating secrecy to benefit continued abuses of the environment does not enhance commercial prosperity. But it does cast suspicion on motives of lawmakers and their cozy relationships with industry, and prolongs sensible enforcement of reasonable environmental protections for neighbors of feed lots.

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