LINCOLN — Nebraska’s days appear to be numbered as the last state banning meatpackers from owning hogs.

State lawmakers passed Legislative Bill 176 on Friday after ending opponents’ last filibuster, both with 34-14 votes.

The measure now heads to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is expected to sign the bill into law.

State Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, who introduced LB 176, said he was happy to get the bill passed.

But he expressed regret that it had divided the state’s agricultural interests and lawmakers representing rural parts of the state.

The bill pitted groups such as the Nebraska Farm Bureau and Nebraska Pork Producers Association against the Nebraska Farmers Union, Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska and similar groups.

Debate within the Legislature turned emotional at times, as opponents argued that the bill would hurt small, independent farmers, and proponents said it would open the door for new opportunities.

Schilz said the bill removes government regulations that hamper hog producers and those who sell to them.

“Quit worrying about trying to legislate nostalgia,” he said.

But Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said Nebraska need not follow the lead of other states.

“We can protect the little guy,” he said. “That’s freedom, too.”

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, who opposed the measure, called it a “game-changer” for Nebraska livestock producers.

LB 176 would open the door for a practice common in other states, in which meatpackers contract with farmers to raise company-owned hogs to the packers’ specifications.

Nebraska is the last state with a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock.

The state ban applies to meatpackers in the state that process at least 150,000 animals per year.

Nebraska producers can, and do, contract with packers in other states. In those cases, the animals are shipped out of Nebraska to be killed and processed.

While LB 176 would leave the ban in place for cattle, Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner predicted that status will not last long.

Schilz suggested as much when he told about his experience managing a cattle feedlot at the time that the packer ban passed.

Before the ban, he said, the feedlot contracted with a packer to feed 4,000 head of cattle. Within a month of the ban passing, he said, those cattle were moved into Colorado. The feedlot never fully recovered.

Al Juhnke, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association, hailed the bill’s passage, saying it would give Nebraska farmers the tools to compete in today’s economy.

Traci Bruckner with the Center for Rural Affairs said the bill was about the bottom line of meatpacking companies.

“This bill will result in fewer farmers, declining rural population and shrinking small town economic opportunities,” Bruckner said.

The Nebraska ban was passed at a time when a state constitutional amendment, known as Initiative 300, barred corporate ownership of farms and ranches in the state.

Courts have since struck down that amendment as unconstitutional.

In other action Friday, the Legislature passed a bill that could someday help the financially troubled Ralston Arena. Lawmakers sent Legislative Bill 285 to the governor on a 41-3 vote.

Under the bill, Ralston, Omaha and Lincoln arenas could split unused money from a fund set up to renovate civic and community centers in small communities.

The fund was created with a portion of the state sales taxes generated around the big-city arenas. The rest of those tax dollars go to help support the arenas.

To be used, the leftover money would have to be in excess of $1 million and be split proportionally among the cities’ three arenas.

Ralston Sen. Merv Riepe, the bill’s sponsor, has said he doesn’t expect that there will be funds available for Ralston in the immediate future. Last year, more money was requested by small towns than the fund had available.

World-Herald staff writer Emily Nohr contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, martha.stoddard@owh.com

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