NASHVILLE - While Gov. Bill Haslam has been swamped with thousands of phone calls and emails urging him to veto a so-called "ag gag" bill, the Republican said Tuesday they won't influence his decision on whether to sign the bill into law or kill it.
"Believe me," Haslam told reporters, "people think we just get phone calls and tally up results, etc. I actually try to go beyond that and find the argument."
The bill, passed last month by the GOP-led Legislature, makes it a crime to video or record cases of animal cruelty unless the material is handed over to law enforcement within 48 hours.
Critics have dubbed the measure the "ag gag" bill. They charge it is designed to quash independent efforts like the Human Society of the United State's 2012 undercover investigation that revealed how state-based trainers beat and used caustic substances to burn the hooves of Tennessee walking horses.
Federal officials last year used the group's documentation of abuse to get a guilty plea from Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.
Proponents argue that if abuse is uncovered, it should be dealt with immediately. Animals shouldn't undergo more suffering, they say while also lobbing accusations the HSUS uses the videos largely as a multimillion dollar fundraising tool and provides little aid to animal shelters.
Nashville public radio station WPLN reported last week Haslam's office reported getting 4,502 emails and 1,796 phone calls -- almost all of them against the bill, which would make it a misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine if the documentation is not quickly turned over to law enforcement.
Just 16 callers said they favored the bill becoming law. It was unclear how many of the total callers and emailers lived in or outside Tennessee. Regardless, Haslam said he won't be swayed by them.
"At the end of the day [a decision] comes back to is it good policy. Is it constitutional, and do we think it's something that will actually help the welfare of animals and livestock," Haslam told reporters following an education event at a Smyrna elementary school.
Haslam said "there's a lot of agriculture people who feel like this isn't just about people who mistreat animals, this is about people who really aren't fans of cattle growers and other agriculture producers. There's a strong feeling from the agriculture community that there's some people who don't value what we do."
The bill hasn't come to Haslam's desk yet. It is among a raft of bills that have yet to be signed by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. Once it comes to the governor, Haslam has 10 days to make a decision.
Proponents like the Tennessee Farm Bureau and state Cattlemen's Association argue such videos can twist standard and legal practices in industrial agriculture out of context.
Meanwhile, celebrities, including country music superstar Carrie Underwood, who lives outside Nashville, have urged Haslam to veto the bill. The Human Society of the United States recently launched a television ad campaign doing the same.
"Tennessee politicians have passed a bill to silence whistle-blowers, covering up the abuse and protecting the next Jackie McConnell," the ad charges.
Last week, the Humane Society released an email exchange between the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and the animal activist group's public policy coordinator, Kayci McLeod.
Holt, who raises hogs, likened the Humane Society's tactics to "tape and rape."
The would-be law will "help protect livestock in Tennessee from suffering months of needless investigation that propagandist groups of radical animal activists, like your fraudulent and reprehensibly disgusting organization ... who are intent on using animals the same way human-traffickers use 17-year-old women," he wrote.
"You work for a pathetic excuse for an organization and a pathetic group of sensationalists who seek to profit from animal abuse. I am glad, as an aside, that we have limited your preferred fundraising methods here in the state of Tennessee; a method that I refer to as 'tape and rape.' Best wishes for the failure of your organization and it's true intent."