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LINCOLN, NE (AP)

Nebraska could have a tougher time passing new restrictions on farming and ranching under a proposed ballot measure, which animal welfare groups are promising to fight.

The proposed constitutional amendment would guarantee the right to 'engage in farming and ranching practices' and prevent the Legislature from passing new regulations without a compelling state interest.

If approved by lawmakers and then voters in November, Nebraska could become the third state nationally to adopt a right-to-farm constitutional amendment. North Dakota voters approved a similar measure in 2012, followed by Missouri in 2014. Oklahoma voters will also consider a right-to-farm amendment in the November general election.

The proposal by Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell comes four years after Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to enshrine hunting, fishing and animal-harvesting rights in the state constitution. The farming and ranching ballot measure has 15 co-sponsors in the Legislature, nearly all from rural districts. The Legislature's Agriculture Committee will review the proposal Tuesday.

Kuehn — a livestock producer, veterinarian and biology professor — said he introduced the measure to protect the industry from what he sees as emotionally charged campaigns against modern agriculture. The measure would shield producers against new attempts to restrict genetically modified organisms, antibiotics for farm animals, pesticides for crops, and other common farming practices. It could also minimize regulations for organic farmers, he said.

'A piece of misinformation can go viral on social media with little basis in fact,' Kuehn said. 'Emotion tends to drive a lot of consumer and voter choices, and with each passing year, fewer and fewer Nebraskans have that direct connection to farms and ranches.'

Kuehn pointed to a 2008 bill in the Legislature that would have limited the use of farrowing crates, but was withdrawn five days later following a public outcry. Even though agriculture faces no immediate threat, Kuehn said he wanted to be 'proactive rather than reactive' and not wait until one emerges.

'Ultimately I'm not concerned about large agribusiness being able to fend off an effort by an activist group,' he said. 'I'm worried about family farmers who don't have the resources to hire lobbyists.'

Kuehn said the measure wouldn't affect current state law, which already provides animal welfare protections, or local governments, which could pass their own laws. The amendment would still allow changes in the law via a ballot measure, and lawmakers could still regulate farming and ranching if they can demonstrate a 'compelling state interest' — a heavy legal burden required to justify a law.

Laura Field, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Cattlemen Association, said her group's board endorsed the proposal in January out of concern that out-of-state animal rights groups could gain traction in the state, particularly in urban areas that aren't as familiar with modern farming practices. Field said the group worries that national news stories about 'one bad actor' could paint an entire industry as abusive.

'This gives us another layer of protection,' Field said.

Field pointed to Colorado, which passed a law in 2008 to phase out the use of gestation crates for sows, and California's cage-free ballot initiative. California voters approved the measure in 2008, prohibiting confinements that don't allow farm animals to turn around, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.

Nebraska already has a right-to-farm policy in state law, but Field said placing it in the constitution would make it harder to overturn.

Critics argued that the measure might be construed to apply to puppy mill owners and cockfighting rings who want to shield themselves from new regulations. The proposal doesn't clearly define farming and ranching practices, said Lori Hook, executive director of Hearts United for Animals, a no-kill animal shelter in Auburn.

'It's very nonspecific in terms of what exactly the rights are,' Hook said. 'It's so loosely worded that I'm just not certain that dog breeders wouldn't be included. And what are we allowing farmers to do to animals?'

Jocelyn Nickerson, Nebraska state director for the Humane Society of the United States, also said the measure would undermine the state's ability to protect animals. The group recently launched a social media campaign to try to keep the measure off the ballot.

'We think this amendment would have a negative effect on the regulation of puppy mills,' Nickerson said.

Kuehn disputed that the measure would apply to puppy mills, noting that cats and dogs don't qualify as livestock under Nebraska law, and he accused the animal welfare groups of 'trying to perpetuate misinformation.'

Not all farm groups support the measure. John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said his group has concerns that the amendment is too broad and could have unknown, unintended consequences. Hansen said the state could lose its ability to impose important environmental regulations or consumer protections.

In addition, Hansen said the ballot measures approved in Missouri was 'divisive and polarizing' and pitted different farming groups against one another.

'This is kind of the nuclear option,' Hansen said. 'We don't want excessive regulations, but we need to have standards for how we do business. This erodes a lot of that ability to govern ourselves in a reasonable way.'

The measure is LR378CA.

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