R-CALF asks for summary judgment on checkoff case
Billings, Mont. – R-CALF USA, through its attorneys, filed documents in the federal district court in Montana May 20, asking that its motion to declare the beef checkoff practices in 15 states unconstitutional be granted. Those states are: Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
The preliminary injunction was granted in 2017, which stopped the Montana Beef Council from retaining half of the mandatory beef checkoff dollar it collects. While the Montana Beef Council continues to collect the mandatory federal beef checkoff dollar every time cattle are sold in the state, the council cannot retain half of the dollar without written consent of the individual who paid it. If written consent is not given, the MBC must forward the entire dollar per head to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.
In every other state, a beef council or beef commission collects the one dollar per head when cattle are sold, sending half of the dollar to the CBB, per U.S. law, and retaining half of the dollar to be spent by the state organization for promotion, education and research related to beef.
R-CALF USA’s suit seeks to require the additional 14 states to follow in the footsteps of Montana, and obtain written permission from cattle owners who pay the checkoff, in order for those state beef councils to retain the $.50 not automatically remitted to the CBB. This week’s action calls for summary judgment in the case, which means that they seek a ruling with no further delays or actions.
“We’re essentially saying that all of the facts have been discovered through the discovery process, so no facts are in dispute. We are asking for them to rule on the case now, rather than sending it to trial,” said the group’s CEO Bill Bullard.
The documents contend that in each of the 15 states, the state beef councils are private corporations that have been keeping half of all the mandatory beef checkoff assessments collected within their states to fund their private speech.
The group is challenging this practice on the grounds that the First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling cattle producers and other citizens to subsidize private speech.
The remedy to this constitutional violation, according to R-CALF USA, is to allow producers in those 15 states to choose whether or not to fund private corporations. If producers choose not to fund their private state councils, their money should go to the government to fund its work on behalf of ranchers, which the Supreme Court has held is constitutional. This now occurs in Montana where R-CALF USA was granted a preliminary injunction in June 2017.
According to Montana Beef Council Executive Director Chaley Harney, her organization, which collects the federal checkoff dollar in her state has been forced to cut programs since the courts granted the injunction.
The MBC’s 2019 budget is $192,565 compared to $581,265 in 2016, she said.
The workload has shifted focus and increased, she said, even though the program budget was cut by 66%.
In FY 2016, the Montana Beef Council paid for four seats on the Federation of State Beef Councils, in FY 2019, they have none.
The court documents state R-CALF USA and its members are injured by the state council’s private speech because rather than promote consumption of domestically produced beef, which R-CALF USA believes will benefit its members, the councils promote beef regardless of how or where it was raised. The injury arises because the councils are not accountable to the public, meaning R-CALF USA cannot employ traditional lobbying techniques to advocate for change.
Another of the group’s objections is that the state beef councils send checkoff money to third-party entities that are likewise not publicly accountable and that use the money to support the consolidation of the cattle and beef industry, another outcome R-CALF USA opposes. In 2018, the Texas Beef Council, for instance, gave $2 million to the private Federation of State Beef Councils and U.S. Meat Export Federation. Other councils have donated to political advocacy groups like the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Initiative.
“The beef checkoff is eliminating opportunities for U.S. cattle producers to remain profitable by promoting foreign beef as if it were equal to domestic beef and by supporting corporate efforts to consolidate and control our industry. Our members said enough is enough and our plan is to put producers back in control of the checkoff, which our lawsuit helps accomplish,” said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.
“The court should grant this motion and bring relief to ranchers in these fifteen states. Independent producers of beef are currently being compelled to subsidize the speech of multinational corporations regardless of their wishes,” said Public Justice Food Project Senior Attorney David Muraskin, who represents R-CALF USA.
“Hopefully the unfettered misuse of U.S. cattle producer’s checkoff dollars by the state beef councils, many of which are closely associated with NCBA affiliated state cattlemen’s associations that fought to repeal country of origin labeling for beef, will be a thing of the past,” said J. Dudley Butler.
Reva, South Dakota rancher Vaughn Meyer, said he supported the idea of the original beef checkoff. “We voted that in thinking we were going to promote US beef at the time,” he says.
The former Cattlemen’s Beef Board member and former South Dakota Beef Industry Council member said one of the big reasons he signed on to the lawsuit to represent South Dakota R-CALF USA members is the lack of accountability with the Federation of State Beef Councils, where a lot of state beef checkoff money is sent.
“It’s a pay to play scheme. They talk about the firewall with the CBB, and at least they have a vague accounting of where that money is being spent, but with the Federation, there is no accountability. They are the right arm of the NCBA.”
While the CBB is subject to USDA oversight, and publishes an annual budget, the Federation is independent of such duties. “The Federation is responsible for its own business decisions and financial accountability,” says the website,
and no audit, budget or financial statement is available.
Meyer believes some of the money may be used to support National Cattlemen’s Beef Association policies he disagrees with rather than being used to simply promote beef.
“The Federation needs to answer to every person that pays in. They should have separate bank accounts and a separate tax ID number from NCBA.”
Meyer said that the deal struck between the US and China that was promoted as a boon to U.S. beef producers allows for imported beef to be shipped to China.
“China said they would take US born, raised and slaughtered product, or beef from cattle imported from Canada or Mexico, or cattle imported from Canada or Mexico and slaughtered here, or beef from cattle shipped here and slaughtered here. I still think it’s wrong that we promote a product that’s working against us.”
Attorneys for R-CALF USA include lead counsel David Muraskin, a Food Project Attorney at Public Justice, J. Dudley Butler of Butler Farm and Ranch Law Group, PLLC, and Bill Rossbach of Rossbach Law, P.C. in Missoula, Montana.
Members of the South Dakota Beef Industry Council who sit on the Federation of State Beef Councils were unable to comment on the issue due to the ongoing litigation.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News