Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R- Winona, speaks on the Senate floor on March 10, 2022. Photo by Catherine J. Davis/Minnesota Senate Media Services
During a recent debate on an agricultural 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 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 about the disease that threatens the deer population.
Soon after the amendment passed, however, the Senate recessed at the urging of Majority Leader Jeremy Miller. When they returned, they watered down Bigham’s amendment.
What Miller didn’t say on the Senate floor: His brother Todd owns a deer farm and a hunting preserve in Winona called Epic Antler Ranch, which bills itself as “Minnesota’s #1 Whitetail hunting destination.”
Hunts are offered between September and December on a high-fenced preserve, according to its website. “Hunters are provided an opportunity to harvest a buck of a lifetime,” the site says.
Because of his family’s ties, Miller should have recused himself from the vote, said Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, in a statement after Bigham’s amendment was watered down.
“Sen. Miller needs to explain why he didn’t recuse himself on this vote, and to clarify his relationship to the deer farming industry, and what interest he had in interrupting Senate proceedings on an important bill so that he could convince five members of his caucus to change their votes and overturn a bipartisan amendment,” López Franzen said in a statement after the vote.
As of now, there appear to be no plans from the Senate DFL to launch a formal ethics complaint.
A spokeswoman for Miller said in a statement: “Miller has many business interests — deer farming isn’t one of them,” she said. “He has no financial stake in his brother’s farm. That would have to be disclosed on his economic interest form. It’s not a conflict of interest.”
Sally Jo Sorensen, who writes the Bluestem Prairie news blog, first reported on the close ties between the Miller family businesses, noting that the address for Epic Antler Farm shows the land was purchased by the Miller family’s scrap metal yard business in 2006, according to a property records database. Jeremy Miller is chief financial officer of the scrap metal business.
Miller and his family have a number of businesses in Winona. The family has long owned a scrap metal yard. More recently, Miller and his wife opened a restaurant. They own a hat company that sends a portion of proceeds to unhoused veterans.
In an email, Todd Miller said Epic Antler Ranch is his business and main source of income.
“I’m opposed to the deer farm moratorium because it would essentially shut down an entire industry and completely eliminate many people’s livelihoods in Minnesota,” he said. “It’s unnecessary and would not resolve the CWD issue,” referring to chronic wasting disease.
He added: “Jeremy is involved in several different endeavors, but deer farming is not one of them. He has no ownership or involvement in my business.”
Todd Miller also serves as vice president of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association, according to the non-profit’s most recent 990 IRS tax filing. He has been active in helping shape state rules on deer farming, giving testimony to the Board of Animal Health.
During a January 2021 meeting, Todd Miller said his deer farm had been quarantined, and that his business could not function, according to meeting minutes. He said 40 of his animals had been tested and not found to have CWD.
Minnesota lawmakers, who are part-time legislators, often have businesses or occupations that are intertwined with legislation and regulation. Insurance and real estate are common professions, as are public employees like teachers. Lawmakers are required to file statements of economic interest with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board outlining any sources of income, securities and business interests.
Miller’s economic interest form does not list any deer farming operations.
The Minnesota Senate has in the past reprimanded members for taking actions that appeared to benefit them but didn’t constitute a direct conflict of interest.
For instance, former state Sen. Satveer Chaudhary of Fridley in 2010 amended legislation as a committee chair that would have boosted walleye on a lake where he owned a cabin. Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bill, in part because of Chaudhary’s change.
Under oath, he argued to the Senate’s ethics subcommittee that the conservation measure would benefit all Minnesotans. The fallout resulted in a DFL primary challenger, Barbara Goodwin, who defeated Chaudhary.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, told MPR News at the time that the Chaudhary episode highlighted that lawmakers must hold themselves to a higher standard or risk losing the confidence of the public.
“You have to absolutely jump up and take the soap scrubber and wash yourself totally clean of moving forward with anything,” said Ingebrigtsen, who sat on the ethics panel who heard the matter. “We can’t be the average citizen when moving forward with things like this.”
Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, who has been leading on the issue of chronic wasting disease in deer, said in an interview he did not see a conflict of interest or anything improper in Jeremy Miller’s involvement.
“I would say that I probably talk to his brother more about deer farming than what he talks to his own brother about deer farming,” he said.
He said the Senate GOP is not in favor of a moratorium on new farms, calling the proposal too restrictive.
“There’s a lot of blame going to these deer farmers like they are the problem for CWD,” Lang said. “I tell you, if we shut down deer farming today, and tomorrow we are going to have CWD to deal with in the wild herd.”
He said Minnesota’s roughly 200 deer farms already take steps to prevent the spread of CWD, including double fencing.
Miller’s family ties to deer farming has attracted the attention of conservationists.
Brad Gausman, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation and a member of the recently formed CWD Action Committee, told Minnesota Outdoor News that Miller’s actions were inappropriate.
“(Miller) has power over decision making in terms of oversight of the captive deer-farming industry and has a family member that can be a beneficiary of his actions,” Gausman told the publication in a story published on Thursday. “The voters deserve to hear from him on what influenced senators to change their votes after that meeting.”
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association estimates deer hunting generates $1.3 billion in economic activity and has called for a number of steps to curtail CWD, including the moratorium on new deer farms and voluntary buyouts of deer farms.
Bigham in an interview accused the GOP-led Senate of doing little to combat CWD and has urged her colleagues to match the House DFL position.
“You’re looking at fewer than 200 deer farmers compared to that of 500,000 deer hunters,” Bigham says.
“The House always brings in a strong bill,” she said, hoping her amendment would make it to the conference committee, where differences in House and Senate versions could be hammered out. “We need to address this.”
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