The law put in place by voters in 2016 that mandated larger enclosures for egg-laying hens would be rewritten under a provision passed by the House in its annual budget.

The proposed language, passed by the House on a voice vote on April 25 during their lengthy private budget negotiations, would loosen the requirements put on egg farmers and approved by 77.6 percent of voters on the 2016 ballot.

"If they want to change it, well then maybe they should bring it back up to the table again. But not just make the change with the people not knowing about it," Bob Beauregard, general manager of Country Hen Egg Farm, a cage-free farm in Hubbardston, told WGBH News.

The amendment was placed in the budget on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States and the New England Brown Egg Council, the two groups at the respective heads of the "yes" and "no" ballot campaigns in 2016. Because both sides of the 2016 campaign, then known at "Question 3," agreed to the change, the House's move has caused only minor ripples at the State House.

Humane Society State Director Stephanie Harris said the amendment is an upgrade to what voters put in place in 2016 because it specifies the cage-free conditions chickens need to be kept in in greater detail than what the voters put into law.

"This is an upgrade to Question 3 and so it would keep Massachusetts as one of the leaders in farm animal welfare. California has done it, Washington has done it and it's important for Massachusetts to take action for farm animals," Harris said.

Harris said that while the new language does change some confinement situations from a required 1.5 square feet to only 1 square foot, it adds "enrichments" to the way hens must be treated that improve the animals' welfare.

"The enrichments mandated provide hens with the opportunity to engage in vital natural behaviors such as perching, scratching, dust bathing, laying eggs in a nest and the upgrade mirrors what passed in California and Washington," Harris said.

Beauregard, an experienced cage-free chicken farmer, disagrees with the Humane Society that the new rule would result in better-off hens.

"I don't agree with compromising a standard that's already been put into place. It's just it's not the right thing to do," Beauregard said.

"A 10,000 square foot building with 1.5 square feet would allow you to have around 6,666 birds. At one square foot per bird, you would be able to have 10,000 birds. So if you just picture that in your mind, you can see that the birds would be a lot shorter on space," Beauregard said.

Both the Brown Egg Council and the Humane Society say the change to the law had to go through the Legislature's budget process so that the law would be in place for the Attorney General to issue regulations starting next January.

Bill Bell from the Brown Egg Council said the change couldn't be filed before the Legislature's annual bill filing deadline because the U.S. Supreme Court was still considering a challenge to California's newer law. In January, the court declined to rule on the challenge, clearing up the legal situation for egg farmers, but giving Massachusetts officials little time to push through an alteration.

"If we were to introduce legislation next year, then it might not have gotten final passage until 2021. And at that point, the Attorney General's rules would have already had to have been written," Bell said.

In a message to supporters, the state's top advocate for the agricultural industry, the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, said the House's change to the chicken cage ban "adds insult to injury by suggesting that farmers can't meet the standards the voters adopted."

The Farm Bureau opposed Question 3 in 2016, but has now parted ways with the egg industry over the change to the law.

"The voters spoke on Question 3. While we were disappointed in the outcome, the will of the voters should be respected. We do not feel it appropriate to change the standards," the message to supporters said.

A spokesman for Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Michael Rodrigues told WGBH News that neither his committee's budget proposal or any amendments to it filed by senators contains the changes to the animal welfare law. A spokesman for House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz did not respond to questions about the necessity or origin of the amendment passed by the House.

If the Senate does not introduce similar language in their budget debate scheduled for next week, the matter will have to be resolved when both chambers negotiate a final budget to send to Gov. Charlie Baker.