An almost daily occurrence for a legislator is the receipt of a huge number of email communications on some bill that bear little relationship to the legislation being considered. One good example from this week were the emails I received on House Bill 405 [Property Protection Act]. While proponents of the bill characterized it as one that protected property rights, opponents of the bill labeled it as “Ag Gag” in a barrage of emails.
The emails were generated almost exclusively in this case by animal rights and environmental organizations that notified supporters of a huge threat via emails and websites — and asked those supporters to click a link and insert their names and addresses in a form to generate a form letter to their legislators. The computer program then generated and sent the letters to the appropriate legislators based on zip codes.
So on HB405 (or “Ag Gag”) I received several hundred emails — mostly from my district. What I found particularly interesting was that I’d already signed on as a cosponsor of the bill, and the letters were asking me to vote against a bill I’d cosponsored. Putting aside that questionable strategy, the bigger problem is that the description of the bill really didn’t match up with the bill itself.
To hear the pejorative name for the bill would suggest the bill was some sort of agricultural bill. It wasn’t. In fact, the bill was much broader. It wasn’t simply about farming; it had application to any employer.
So what did the bill do?
Here’s how the nonpartisan legislative staff characterized the bill: “House Bill 405 would protect property owners from damages resulting from individuals acting in excess of the scope of permissible access and conduct granted to them. The Proposed Committee Substitute (PCS) clarifies that a person violates the act if he or she ‘intentionally’ gains access to the non-public areas of the premises and clarifies that acts exceeding a person’s authority to enter are limited to those items enumerated in the bill.”
The reference to the “Proposed Committee Substitute” means that the bill was being changed somewhat by its sponsor, but clearly the change was intended to simply clarify the bill.
So why was the bill introduced? Well, the sponsors wanted to stop people from deceitfully taking a job for the purpose of undertaking a private undercover investigation, for example, for the purpose of exposing the business practices of the employer. One opponent of the bill argued that it bothered him that a newspaper reporter couldn’t go undercover, take a job with some company and then use his or her access to the company to expose wrongful practices of that company.
My reaction to that was “wait a second.” Government officials can’t go on other people’s property without a warrant, but he was arguing that it should be perfectly fine for individuals to use deception to gain access to personal property for the purpose of disclosing some set of facts via recordings or pictures.
Basically, the opponents of the bill were saying that one should trample over someone else’s property rights because the ends justify the means. In an effort to garner support for this argument, they played to the sympathies of animal lovers everywhere by telling people that the purpose of the bill was to thwart investigations of large industrial farms where animals were kept and possibly being treated inhumanely.
I’m sure this bill would thwart private, undercover investigations undertaken by animal rights advocates of large industrial farms — but did that make the bill an “Ag Gag” bill? My view was that if someone decides that they want to gain access to someone else’s property by deception, no matter what their intentions were, they ought to have some potential liability.
The use of highly misleading characterizations of bills to generate communications from constituents is pretty common, and one of the bills that I sponsored became the subject of one such campaign — but that is perhaps a subject for a future newsletter.