N.C. legislators show how not to make sausage

If you're looking for a good example of how not to go about the people's work in the final days of the N.C. legislative session, the Senate's handling of House Bill 822 would be hard to beat.

The House unanimously passed the original bill to tidy up some earlier legislation and sent it to the Senate in May of 2007. The Senate didn't act until Tuesday.

That's when the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee tossed out the technical corrections and substituted something entirely unrelated. The new bill would, for example, reverse an important restriction on the siting of hog farm facilities, allowing farmers to rebuild hog houses without their neighbors' consent.

That's going to cause trouble. The legislature applied the restriction in 1995 because a huge buildup of hog farms in Eastern North Carolina resulted in noxious odors that many residents said ruined their quality of life. Scientists say hog odor and emissions also affect health, including childhood respiratory problems.

The proposed change would allow farmers to rebuild facilities that burned down, or were otherwise destroyed by acts of God, without getting neighbors' permission, as the old law required. It also allows farmers to convert hog houses with cramped stalls to gestation pens in order to give sows more room to move about.

That's a more humane environment for the sows, but how about for humans who live nearby? That kind of question that did not get adequate consideration in the Senate's rush to act. In fact, the Senate committee declined to allow a lot of N.C. citizens to address the panel and relay their concerns about the bill. While there may be good reasons to consider the bill – or alternative ways to provide sows more space – the Senate appears to be rushing it through without adequate debate.

That's wrong. For one thing, it prolongs the old style of hog farming that allowed hog barns too close to neighbors, open lagoons to store hog feces and urine, and spraying of that waste on nearby fields. The legislature ought to be encouraging the transition to new ways of handling hog waste, including recycling waste into energy or making useful byproducts.

The way this bill was pushed through the Senate brings to mind the abuses of power that put some ex-legislators in prison in recent years. It smacks of arrogance, contempt for the public interest and devotion to the bogus theory that legislators always know best. The Senate should send the bill back to committee and invite real public discussion of its costs and benefits.