During a recent debate on a farm budget bill, Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, won five votes from GOP colleagues to amend the bill and impose regulations on deer farms to combat the chronic wasting disease, including a moratorium on new operations.
It was an unusual show of bipartisan support for a DFL-led amendment in the GOP-controlled Senate, illustrating the deep concern of many hunters and their allies in the Legislature over the disease threatening the deer population.
Shortly after the amendment passed, however, the Senate was suspended at the request of Majority Leader Jeremy Miller. When they returned, they watered down Bigham’s amendment.
What Miller didn’t tell the Senate: His brother Todd owns a deer farm and game preserve in Winona called the Epic Antler Ranch, which bills itself as “Minnesota’s premier whitetail deer hunting destination.”
Hunts are offered between September and December on a fenced high reserve, according to its website. “Hunters have the opportunity to rake in a dollar of a lifetime,” the site says.
Because of his family ties, Miller should have recused himself from the vote, Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, said in a statement after Bigham’s amendment was watered down.
“Sen. Miller needs to explain why he didn’t recuse himself in this vote, and clarify his relationship to the deer farming industry, and what interest he had in halting Senate work on a bill important in order to convince five members of his caucus to change their votes and overturn a bipartisan amendment,” López Franzen said in a statement after the vote.
At this time, there do not appear to be any Senate DFL plans to launch a formal ethics complaint.
A Miller spokeswoman said in a statement, “Miller has many business interests – deer farming is not one of them,” she said. “He has no financial interest in his brother’s farm. This should be disclosed on his economic interest form. It is not a conflict of interest. »
Sally Jo Sorensen, who writes the bluestem meadow news blog, first reported on the close ties between the Miller family businesses, noting that the address for Epic Antler Farm shows that the land was purchased by the Miller family’s scrap business in 2006, according to a database of real estate records. Jeremy Miller is CFO of the scrap metal business.
Miller and his family owns several businesses in Winona. The family has long owned a scrap yard. More recently, Miller and his wife opened a restaurant. They own a hat company that sends a portion of the profits to homeless veterans.
In an email, Todd Miller said Epic Antler Ranch was his business and main source of income.
“I oppose the deer farm moratorium because it would essentially shut down an entire industry and completely eliminate the livelihoods of many people in Minnesota,” he said. “It’s unnecessary and it wouldn’t solve the chronic wasting disease problem,” referring to chronic wasting disease.
He added: “Jeremy is involved in several different businesses, but deer farming is not one of them. He has no ownership or involvement in my business.
Todd Miller is also Vice President of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association, according to the nonprofit’s most recent IRS 990 tax return. He was active in shaping state rules on deer farming, testifying before the Board of Animal Health.
At a meeting in January 2021, Todd Miller said his deer farm had been quarantined and his business could not operate, according to minutes of meetings. He said 40 of his animals had been tested and were not found to have CWD.
Minnesota legislators, who are part-time legislators, often have businesses or professions closely related to legislation and regulation. Insurance and real estate are common professions, as are civil servants such as teachers. Legislators are required to file economic interest declarations with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board outlining all sources of income, securities and business interests.
Miller’s economic interest form does not list any deer ranching operations.
The Minnesota Senate has in the past reprimanded members for taking actions that appeared to benefit them but did not constitute a direct conflict of interest.
For example, former state senator Satveer Chaudhary of Fridley in 2010 changed legislation as committee chairman that allegedly stimulated walleye on a lake where he owned a cabin. Then-Governor. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bill, in part because of Chaudhary’s change.
Under oath, he argued before the Senate ethics subcommittee that the conservation measure would benefit all Minnesotans. The fallout resulted in a main DFL challengerBarbara Goodwin, who defeated Chaudhary.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said MPR News at the time Chaudhary’s episode underscored that lawmakers must hold themselves to a higher standard or risk losing the public’s trust.
“You absolutely have to jump in and take the soap scrubber and wash yourself totally so you don’t move forward with anything”, said Ingebrigtsen, who served on the ethics committee that heard the case. “We can’t be the average citizen when we move forward with things like this.”
Senator Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, who led the issue of chronic wasting disease in deer, said in an interview that he saw no conflict of interest or anything inappropriate in the involvement of Jeremy Miller.
“I would say I probably talk to his brother more about deer farming than he talks to his own brother about deer farming,” he said.
He said the Senate GOP did not support a moratorium on new farms, calling the proposal too restrictive.
“There’s a lot of blame on these deer herders as if they’re the MDC’s problem,” Lang said. “I’m telling you, if we shut down the deer ranch today, and tomorrow, we’ll have to deal with chronic wasting disease in the wild herd.”
He said Minnesota’s roughly 200 deer farms are already taking steps to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease, including double fencing.
Miller’s family ties to deer farming have caught the attention of conservationists.
Brad Gausman, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation and a member of the recently formed CWD Action Committee, said Minnesota Outdoor News that Miller’s actions were inappropriate.
“(Miller) has the power to make decisions in terms of overseeing the captive deer breeding industry and has a family member who can benefit from his actions,” Gausman told the publication in a statement. article published Thursday. “Voters deserve to hear about what caused senators to change their vote after this meeting.”
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association estimates that deer hunting generates $1.3 billion in economic activity and has called for a number of measures to reduce chronic wasting disease, including a moratorium on new deer farms and voluntary buyouts of deer farms.
Bigham, in an interview, accused the GOP-led Senate of doing little to address chronic wasting disease and urged his colleagues to align themselves with the House DFL’s position.
“You’re looking at less than 200 deer herders versus 500,000 deer hunters,” Bigham says.
“The House still presents a strong bill,” she said, hoping her amendment would make it to the conference committee, where the differences between the House and Senate versions could be ironed out. “We have to fix this problem.”