INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana House and Senate barely kicked off the 2014 legislative session Tuesday after just enough members braved bad roads and frigid weather to make their way to the Statehouse.
The session was originally supposed to start Monday but was postponed. Some lawmakers still could not attend because of travel bans across the state.
The House had a quorum of 67 to start, but the Senate had to delay the beginning of its session for 70 minutes, waiting for 34 members to arrive.
Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said legislators needed to meet for bill filing and committee meetings to begin for the short session ending in mid-March.
The Senate got down to business with several committee meetings Tuesday evening. Those panels were expected to vote on legislation, but Long later said the chairmen would delay votes to ensure that the public was able to attend and speak on the bills.
The Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee heard this year’s version of the controversial “ag gag” bill.
The legislation last year attempted to limit videotaping and photography of farm activities – even if truthful.
Supporters contend the bill is necessary to stop people from making unwanted videos and pictures that could damage their reputations.
But opponents said Indiana’s laws already protect businesses from trespassing and defamation.
This year, Senate Bill 101 would allow agricultural businesses to post a sign listing prohibited activities that could affect the business’s trade secrets or operations. Violators would face a felony carrying prison time and a fine of up to $10,000.
The bill also would expand the state’s criminal trespass law to include land as well as buildings.
“We have got to protect our farms and agricultural operations,” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who introduced a similar bill last year. “They are a huge economic driver.”
Several amendments were discussed Tuesday that would change the bill significantly, including eliminating any mention of signs.
Essentially, the altered bill would create the new crime of agricultural mischief for anyone who enters an agricultural operation and knowingly or intentionally engages in conduct that causes a financial loss to the operator of the operation.
A similar provision exists in the state’s criminal trespass law if someone doesn’t have permission to be on the property.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, questioned whether someone could be prosecuted for taking a picture of an illegal activity on a farm and turning it into police, which eventually leads to a financial loss.
Holdman said no prosecutor would file charges if the person documented illegal activity.
There is no specific immunity granted in the bill, though.
“Farmers don’t give up their personal property rights just because they’re a farmer,” said Josh Trenary, executive director of Indiana Pork.
He said his industry doesn’t condone animal abuse and said the Indiana Board of Animal Health has the right to investigate complaints.
“Trespass by private citizens isn’t necessary,” Trenary said.
Erin Huang, the state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill is an attempt to bully people away from documenting possible illegal or unethical activity.
She and others claimed the bill’s wording was broad and vague – and possibly unconstitutional.
The committee will vote Tuesday on the bill.