Animal cruelty bill draws unanimous support in first hearing

One of the bigger bills of the session had clear sailing in its first legislative appearance Tuesday.

The Senate Agriculture Committee voted unanimously in favor of a measure creating a new felony animal cruelty penalty in South Dakota. Animal rights groups have pushed for years for such a penalty, arguing that the current misdemeanor penalty is insufficient for certain terrible animal abuse cases. But the ag industry has pushed back, fearing an attack on traditional practices like cattle branding.

This year, the ag industry got together with animal rights groups to write the bill. Testimony Tuesday focused almost entirely on the protections the measure contained for traditional ag practices and other areas, and not on the need for a felony penalty.

The only opposition testimony came from a Hereford resident, who worried about the added burden a felony conviction carried for someone compared to a misdemeanor.

The measure now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

More coming later.

Despite push from ag, rural lawmakers doubt animal cruelty bill

South Dakota’s ag groups are on board with a new law creating a felony penalty for animal cruelty. But lawmakers representing ag-heavy areas still have major concerns.

Over the course of an hour-long briefing Friday morning, state veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven and other law supporters tried to assuage fears that a felony charge is too harsh or that traditional ag practices would become criminalized under the law.

"If you really digest what we’ve worked on here, together as animal agriculture, taking into consideration the concerns of some citizens in our state that feel differently, I think we’ve really balanced it, to where we’ve addressed those unintended consequences very well," said Oedekoven.

But lawmakers like Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, and Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, remain skeptical.

"It’s always been against the law," Olson said. "We don’t do any of those things that those evil PETA people think we do. But I don’t like the idea that it’s going to be a felony. We’re caving in to a bunch of greenies from out of state who have no business messing with our agriculture business."

South Dakota is the only state in the country where animal cruelty isn’t a felony. For years, animal advocates both in South Dakota and around the country have tried to change that. But they’ve always lost because ag groups have been concerned such a law could make things like cattle branding or hog confinements illegal.

Now the ag groups themselves have gotten on board, determined to pass a felony animal cruelty law that they’ve written before the Humane Society of the United States or another group puts a version they like less on the ballot as an initiated measure.

"This is a proactive measure to deal with the constant threat," said Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. "I truly believe if this gets to the ballot, I think we can beat it at the ballot. (But) it’s going to cost a lot of money to beat it at the ballot. And it doesn’t stop them coming back again in the future. Passing this legislation takes away the argument that South Dakota doesn’t have the felony."

All this doesn’t ensure passage of the bill, which will appear before a Senate ag committee containing plenty of farmers and ranchers.

Current South Dakota law makes it a misdemeanor to neglect, abandon, mistreat or abuse an animal. The proposed bill would make intentional, willful and malicious “gross physical abuse” of an animal a Class 6 felony, while keeping neglect, abandonment and mistreatment as a misdemeanor.

The crime would apply to both livestock and pets, though the two are investigated differently. Veterinarians at the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, which is by law filled with representatives of animal industries, investigate accusations of livestock abuse. Pet abuse goes straight to the criminal justice system.

The penalty for a Class 6 felony, the lowest in South Dakota law, is two years in prison and a $4,000 fine. Conviction of a felony also costs the felon some of their civil rights, including ability to own a gun and vote.

It’s the lifelong impacts of a felony convictions, beyond the prison time, that raised the hackles of people like Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge.

Bradford expressed concern that non-rural residents could decide that traditional ag activities were malicious abuse — and then convict a farmer or rancher of a felony, instead of the more moderate misdemeanors.

As an example of the kind of activity he thought shouldn’t count but might be interpreted as cruel under the law, Rhoden told a story of a neighbor who killed his own dog on the spot with fencing pliers after the animal was caught killing another rancher’s sheep.

"It was humane," Rhoden said. "The dog was killed instantly. But who interprets that?"

The proposed animal cruelty law includes, among a long list of exceptions, both “any humane killing of an animal” and “any reasonable action… for the destruction or control of an animal known to be dangerous.” Advocates of the bill told Rhoden those clauses would protect that rancher, though Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, added that she doesn’t “feel really good about what (the rancher) did.”

Now the lobbying push will begin, with almost every single agriculture group in South Dakota pushing to get this passed.

"They need some additional information and some education on the background and the work that went in to do this, and the reasoning for why some of the sections are written as they are," said Mike Held, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Farm Bureau, of skeptical lawmakers. "We will do that."

Why did Racota’s subsidies decline?

Previously I noted that the farm subsidies paid to Racota Valley Ranch, property of Rep. Kristi Noem’s family (and formerly her) had curiously declined starting in 2007 from much higher levels. I noted that was when Noem started serving in public office but didn’t have any other reason why that could be so.

A reader emails with one possible explanation: that’s when the Renewable Fuel Standard 2 started being implemented. That created a mandate to use corn ethanol, which drove up the price of farm commodities. With crops fetching higher prices, farmers were eligible for smaller amounts of subsidies.

Anyone have any other explanations?

Varilek: No close relations to subsidy-getters

While reporting on what the Environmental Working Group’s database of farm subsidy recipients had to say about Rep. Kristi Noem, I also plugged in “Varilek” to see what came up under the last name of Noem’s Democratic challenger.

There are 17 Varileks in South Dakota who have received farm subsidies since 1995, taking in a total of around $1.7 million. Five more in Minnesota and Nebraska have another $400,000.

None of those are named Matt Varilek, or his wife Maggie Varilek. But are any of those parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts or uncles of the Democratic candidate? I put the question to the Varilek campaign.

Varilek’s campaign manager David Benson checked with the candidate and came back with a “no.”

"There’s an Elvern Varilek… he’s like cousin to Matt’s grandfather Frank,” Benson said. “The others, I don’t know if Matt even knows how he’s related to them. They’re distant relatives.”

Elvern Varilek, of Geddes, got $306,653 from 1995 to present in farm subsidies.

What’s new with Noem and farm subsidies?

The activist Environmental Working Group came out last week with an eye-popping report headline on a report: “Taxpayers Paid $6.2 Million in Farm Subsidies to Members of Congress, Families.” And right near the top of the report, below Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn. (who with his wife collected $3.5 million in agricultural support), is South Dakota’s own Rep. Kristi Noem. EWG says she’s received $480,790.

But it’s important to read carefully to figure out exactly what EWG is reporting here. They’re not saying Noem received almost $500,000 while sitting as a member of Congress (she was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2011). They’re saying that Noem’s received that much since the start of its invaluable database in 1995.

Noem’s receipt of farm subsidies was well-reported in her 2010 campaign against Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (though I’m sure not as heavily reported as Noem’s opponents would have wished), when people tossed around a $3 million figure that included money paid to Noem’s family as well as herself.

So what’s new here? EWG has two years in its report that weren’t there during Noem’s campaign for the House: 2010 and 2011.

In each those years, Noem personally received $1,370 in direct farm payments. It’s the first time Noem had personally received any direct payments since 1997. She’s never gotten very much money personally in direct payments — her EWG page even lists her with a negative value, though that’s an accounting illusion reflecting a repayment Noem made in the first year of EWG’s database of federal money she had previously received.

The real money in Noem’s farm subsidy past comes from the family-owned Racota Valley Ranch. That’s the place that’s received more than $3 million since 1995, $2.6 million of which was direct payments, $380,000 in disaster subsidies and $186,000 in conservation payments.

In 2008, the last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture made this information available to EWG, Noem was listed as having a 16.9 percent share in the ranch. Extrapolating that figure to the present day, EWG comes up with its $480,790 figure.

In 2010 and 2011, the two years that weren’t public when Noem first ran for Congress, Racota Valley received $71,916 and $68,549 in total farm subsidies (most of that in direct payments).

But Noem’s spokesperson said the congresswoman actually sold her interest in Racota Valley in 2008. That would mean she personally hasn’t received any farm payments, other than the two personal $1,370 payments, since she took office. That would also take about $37,000 off Noem’s EWG estimate (removing the figures for 2009, 2010 and 2011).

Of course, Racota Valley is still a family-owned ranch, so Noem’s close relatives are still benefitting from these payments even if she personally isn’t. And the EWG data doesn’t include crop insurance, a major program for South Dakota farmers (and one in which Noem has a personal connection, with her husband, Bryon, owning a crop insurance business).

An interesting, possibly meaningless side note: Racota Valley racked up that $3 million figure chiefly in a few big years: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2006. Those five years accounted for $1.9 million of the $3.1 million Racota Valley received from 1995 to 2011.

If you draw a cutoff in the year 2007 (when Racota Valley’s payments fell by two-thirds from $258,000 to $87,000), then from 2007 to present Racota Valley received an average of $86,688 per year. That’s a lot of money, but not compared to 1995-2006, when the ranch received an average $230,431 per year. Probably coincidentally, 2007 is when Noem began serving in the state Legislature.

The final important bit of context is the upcoming farm bill, which the House is scheduled to mark up in a week or two. The already-passed Senate version eliminates these direct payments while preserving the crop insurance program, and the House version might do the same. Noem has said that’s a move she can support. It’s also a popular move in South Dakota, if you have to cut any farm subsidies. Northern states benefit much more from crop insurance than they do from direct payments, which disproportionately go to southern farmers. 

Of possible relevance: here’s a list of the Varileks who’ve received farm subsidies over that time. I’ve reached out to the Varilek campaign to see if any of them are closely related to Matt.

This EWG report doesn’t have very much new information about Kristi Noem’s relationship to farm subsidies, though by reviving the issue of Noem’s past payments they’re not doing any favors to her.

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