Rural Routes/Margot Ford McMillen

Coalitions Make a Difference

This year, Missouri's new government has managed to offend everybody with any sense. They've slashed Medicaid payments, closed mental health facilities, stopped WIC coupons for low-income moms and elders who want to shop at farmers' markets, and shuttered the state organic program that was set up to help small farms.

All these cuts have hurt the people with the least clout while preserving benefits like WIC coupons that benefit corporate grocers like Wal-Mart. But, as lawmakers slowly learn, there are always unintended effects.

As bad as the assault on the middle class has been, it was a beautiful thing to see people come together in protest. Wheelchair occupants surrounded the governor's office and chained themselves to the House Chamber. Farmers and humane society activists marched side by side, finding common ground with environmentalists. Midwives pushed strollers full of toddlers from one office to another, explaining that their work is not criminal.

As a citizen lobbyist with ten years' experience, I saw fellow citizens clogging the hallways and galleries like I've never seen before. And while many lawmakers managed to maintain their arrogance, others became truly sympathetic.

My primary issue was corporate theft of the animal livestock industry from family farmers. The corporate scam is to convince farmers, called contractors, that they can prosper by building huge confinement facilities called CAFOs or AFOs, packing thousands of corporate-owned animals into them, raising the critters and turning them over to the trucks that take them to the slaughter facility.

The corporates set out a logical schedule, saying that batches of animals will arrive on a certain schedule -- this many pounds of animals and this much feed will be delivered in a timely manner, with the amounts delivered against the total pounds of animals sold at the end. How many pounds, you ask? Well, you'll just have to trust the corporate truckers.

And if the trucks are late and the contractor has nothing to raise? Well, explain the corporates, we do our best.

The banks make it very convenient by arranging for payment checks to be deposited directly. The bank deducts the building payment, applicable insurance, taxes and so forth, and then the rest goes right into the contractor's account. Uh huh. A study in Ohio showed that contractors make around $8 per hour. Corporate CEOs do somewhat better; their workers haven't been sharing in the profits.

And there's the waste issue.

And the water-use issue.

And the animal rights issue.

And Cargill, the number one player in this system, wants to increase the abuse with 300 new facilities in our region.

Don't get me started.

So, as I said, we slogged through the legislative session, beating down one argument after another, until the last day. With Democrats in the minority and losing every issue they voted on as a block, we were able to recruit Republicans. And then, the power turned out to be with the most cohesive group of all -- the minority caucus. Perhaps because they had suffered so many losses, perhaps because they had just learned a lot, they really hung together.

If you do nothing else next session in your state, try to get to the last day. From your seat in the gallery above the floor, you'll have the treat of seeing dozens of bills proposed and voted up or down in a few hours. During Missouri's last session, bills on school bus driver training, liquor licenses in churches, XXX-rated bars, sports stadium financing and early childhood education were dispatched.

A rosy-cheeked representative moved to bring back the bill we had been fighting. If passed, it would have destroyed local control over CAFOs, preventing counties from passing their own ordinances to regulate the behemoths.

In the gallery, we knew that reconsidering the bill back could only mean one thing: They had counted the votes and thought they could pass it. The reconsideration would give them a chance. But first, reconsideration had to pass.

We knew that the Missouri branch of the Farm Bureau, the most powerful lobbying group in most rural states, had not given up the fight. Their director had walked the halls, personally, to solicit votes. There she was, in the gallery, looking cool and collected and entirely blond from head to high heels. Many of the legislators we had talked to had said that they had made their bad decisions based completely on Farm Bureau input.

What could we do? Who had changed their votes?

At least, we thought, we could stand as witnesses. We could use cell phones to call offices in protest and insist that our messages got to lawmakers on the floor. And then we could protest to the press and hope they reported it our way.

On the floor, there was a tense 10 minutes of debate for and against reconsideration. One side said the question had been settled. The other said it should have another chance. Then, with a little bit of fuss, the energy left the rosy-cheeked fellow. He sort of deflated, you might say, as the black caucus left the floor.

Now it was clear. The bill could have been reconsidered with their votes, but not without them. To the mostly urban minorities, it turned out, local control is an important concept, and so they stood with the farmers.

Next year, we know, the issue will come up again. And so will many of the issues that were voted in or out this year. There's little new in lawmaking, but the citizens who are now involved and the coalitions that have been forged -- there's the difference!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

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