Governor goes to Derby, slaughter bill becomes law

May 8, 2009

by John Holland and Vicki Tobin

On Friday, May 1, Governor Brian Schweitzer packed and left his office to head for the Kentucky Derby.

On his desk, he left HB 418, a bill designed to encourage the building of a horse slaughter plant in Montana.

The bill was designed to lure a horse slaughter plant to Montana by preventing Montana citizens from challenging such a facility in the state courts without first posting a bond equal to 20% of the facility's cost. Without his veto, the bill became law.

The Governor had initially issued an amendatory veto of the bill, pointing out that it was almost certainly unconstitutional, but the legislature had sent it back to him without his suggested amendments.

The bill's sponsor, Ed Butcher, was quick to praise the Governor's act of surrender.

In an interview published on The Horse website, Butcher dismissed the idea that his bill was unconstitutional. He went on to explain his belief that the role of the courts is more like that of movie critics, saying, "Courts have the right to offer an opinion about legislation - they do not have the right to make law. That's the legislature's job."

Butcher has said these safeguards - limiting access of citizens to the courts - were needed to avoid the types of legal appeals that shuttered the country's last horse slaughterhouses in Illinois and Texas in 2007.

In an earlier article "Showdown at Horse Slaughter Pass", the Equine Welfare Alliance's John Holland used the metaphor that Butcher was trying to "tie the citizens of Montana to the tracks", and pondered whether the Governor would save the day.

Alas, the Governor had his mind on the Kentucky Derby and left the citizens to their fate. Luckily, Butcher's bill ties them to the wrong tracks.

None of the three US horse slaughter plants was ever closed through such a law suit. This is not to say they should not have been, but they weren't.

The Dallas Crown plant was ordered closed by the Kaufman Texas Board of Adjustments (not a private suit), but they managed to delay even that order in the courts until they were eventually closed under a long un-enforced 1949 state law.

In irony piled upon irony, that 1949 law had originally been pushed by cattlemen to prevent horse meat from competing with beef. Believing that the movement to stop horse slaughter is part of a "vegan agenda", cattlemen were among the strongest proponents of HB 418!

And the Illinois plant was closed under a new Illinois law banning horse slaughter. A bill to reverse that law recently failed in the Illinois legislature and was withdrawn by its sponsor.

Of course, no slaughter plant can currently slaughter horses in the US for human consumption because Congress removed funding for the required US Department of Agriculture ante-mortem inspections.

The bill's only real impact may be the statement it makes about Montana, its legislature and its governor.

But in a final irony, Schweitzer pointed to one of the fundamental injustices of horse slaughter by going to the Kentucky Derby as he announced to the world that Montana wants to become the country's new abattoir.

According to a study done for the American Horse Council, American horses generate about $US141 billion a year in direct and indirect revenue through thousands of events such as the Kentucky Derby. The slaughter industry pays about $US40 million a year to ship these horses, including some of these athletes, companions and entertainers, to an inhumane end. Put another way, after all they do for us; we sell our horses to slaughter for just 3 cents of every $100 they earn.