Sunday, May 3, 2009

Horse facility bill lapses into law

Gazette State Bureau
HELENA - A controversial bill encouraging the construction of horse slaughterhouses in Montana and restricting legal challenges to such facilities became law Friday without Gov. Brian Schweitzer's signature.

Schweitzer refused to sign or veto the bill. Under the Montana Constitution, a bill automatically becomes law 10 days after the governor receives it, if he does not sign or veto it.

"The governor made his opinion on this bill known; the Legislature did the same," said Schweitzer's spokeswoman, Sarah Elliott. "No action was taken, and the bill has now become law."

Elliott was referring to Schweitzer's failed attempt to get the Legislature to amend House Bill 418, by Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred. Schweitzer asked lawmakers in early April to remove major provisions aimed at limiting legal challenges to slaughterhouses' operating permits.
However, the House and Senate rejected Schweitzer's proposed changes by wide margins, so HB418 was sent to him as originally proposed.

Butcher has said the safeguards were needed to avoid the types of legal appeals that shuttered the country's last horse slaughterhouses, in Illinois and Texas in 2007.

HB418 was one of the most contentious bills of the 2009 Legislature, as Montanans and out-of-state people flooded lawmakers with e-mails on the measure.

Reached in Iowa, Butcher was pleased his bill became law - with or without Schweitzer's signature.

"I think it was probably the best move he could make considering the spot he was in," Butcher said.

"I think the people of Montana will really appreciate the fact that the governor did in fact listen to the overwhelming support for the need for a horse-processing plant, and there is a serious need for it in Montana."

Butcher said Schweitzer obviously was "getting an incredible amount of pressure from the out-of-state animal rights folks" and environmental groups that "didn't like the precedent this set with (blocking) frivolous lawsuits."

"I made it clear we didn't want to avoid clean-air and clean-water regulations and the siting requirements," Butcher said. "I wanted people to have a say in where it's located. Once all the hearings have been held, once the agencies have ruled and issued all the permits, that's where the harassment has to stop."

Three communities - Conrad, Hardin and Wolf Point - already have contacted him to express their interest in a slaughterhouse, Butcher said.

Now that the bill is law, Butcher said he will call companies interested in building horse slaughterhouses.

"Realistically, the plant is going to have to be built by the international companies that have access to the (horse meat) markets," Butcher said. "It's foolish for any American investors to build a plant without being in close connection with international companies that control the markets."

Nancy Perry, vice president of governmental affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, which opposed HB418, questioned the significance of the bill's becoming law.

"This bill has practically no impact and probably will be struck down because of its unconstitutionality," she said.

Schweitzer rightly pointed out the bill's constitutional flaws, Perry said, and "it was irresponsible of the Legislature to send it back to him without the changes."

"Beyond that, it would be a losing proposition to attempt to open a horse slaughtering plant in Montana since the Congress prohibits inspection of horse meat for human consumption," Perry said. "That meat cannot move in interstate and foreign commerce."

Schweitzer's April 3 amendatory veto suggested deleting a provision that required challengers of a slaughterhouse to post a bond worth 20 percent of the facility's construction costs and could have made them legally responsible for the damages the company incurred in a trial.

He also sought to delete the bill's provision that prevents courts from stopping construction of a horse slaughterhouse once the state has approved it.

At the time, Schweitzer said, "The appeal rights we have as citizens for environmental protection" would be gone.

Published on Saturday, May 02, 2009.
Last modified on 5/2/2009 at 12:11 am

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