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Legislation to Reform Checkoffs Introduced in the House

Changes to these checkoff programs would include a prohibition on lobbying groups receiving checkoff funds, restrictions on anticompetitive activity, and mandatory audits.

Legislation introduced in the House on Thursday would reform the programs that impose mandatory taxes on producers of some commodities in order to fund promotional campaigns. Changes to these checkoff programs would include a prohibition on lobbying groups receiving checkoff funds, restrictions on anticompetitive activity, and mandatory audits.

The bill was introduced by Representative Dina Titus of Nevada. “The USDA’s checkoff programs have operated without sufficient oversight for far too long — and this legislation will bring much-needed accountability and transparency,” Titus said in a press release. “Family farmers should not be forced to pay into organizations that sometimes lobby against their own interests and threaten animal welfare.”

There are checkoff programs for about 20 agricultural commodities. The checkoffs pool money from producers to fund generic advertisements and other promotions, such as the Got Milk? campaign. Producers of many different commodities, but especially cattle ranchers, have spoken out against their checkoff programs. Common complaints include that checkoff-funded promotions fail to support independent producers and that checkoff funds are illegally used for lobbying activities by agricultural groups.

While there is technically a mandatory firewall between checkoff funds and lobbying activity, previous reporting from FERN has found that compliance with the rules about firewalls can be spotty or inconsistent. In Ohio, for instance, the state beef checkoff board was comprised of the same staff, office, and phone numbers as the state cattle lobby.

One ranchers’ group, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, is currently spearheading litigation that could reshape checkoff programs in several states. The lawsuit alleges that the beef checkoff program violates the First Amendment because it requires ranchers to fund private speech disseminated by state beef councils. The ranchers have so far succeeded in temporarily halting the collection of the Montana state beef checkoff.

“The evidence is clear: Commodity checkoff programs abuse the very farmers and ranchers who are mandated to pay into them,” said the Organization for Competitive Markets, an agricultural research and advocacy group, in a statement. “As long as checkoff funds remain hidden from accountability and in the hands of trade and lobbying groups, independent family agriculture is in peril of being wiped from the face of the countryside. It is imperative that this legislation be passed and signed into law.”

Titus’ bill is a companion to the OFF Act, which was introduced in the Senate in March by Senators Mike Lee, Cory Booker, Rand Paul, and Elizabeth Warren.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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