Summary judgment against R-CALF in checkoff case
According to an NCBA news release, a magistrate judge granted summary judgment to USDA and 15 state beef councils in the R-CALF vs. Sonny Perdue lawsuit over state beef councils using checkoff money for private speech.
R-CALF USA’s lead attorney in the case says this is just one step in the legal process.
“The Magistrate held that for decades USDA had been violating producers’ rights and the Constitution by turning over money to unaccountable state beef councils. He also concluded that after R-CALF filed suit and exposed this misconduct in the checkoff program, USDA was able to change the program and bring it into compliance with the First Amendment. We disagree with the second conclusion because checkoff money is still flowing to unaccountable private entities run by the meat packers. We’ll be arguing as much to the District Court in the coming weeks. This is the first step in a lengthy process of finally resolving this matter.”
NCBA was happy with the ruling, saying, “We are pleased with today’s opinion, which allows state beef councils to continue the important work of beef promotion and research. Although this case is far from complete, this was a crucial step toward ensuring state beef councils retain the important ability to direct their investments at the grassroots level,” said Colin Woodall, NCBA Chief Executive Officer.
In a 2005 precedent-setting case, the supreme court ruled that the beef checkoff is “government speech” and is therefore immune to arguments that it is violating the first amendment rights of its financiers.
In R-CALF’s more recent R-CALF vs. Sonny Perdue case, the national cattle organization argued that the Montana State Beef Council and other state beef councils are not government entities, and are therefore, not producing the same “government speech” put out by the federal checkoff oversight group, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. The Cattlemen’s Beef Board is composed of individuals who are appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. State beef councils are not created equally – some are composed of appointed boards, some are made of reprsentatives from different agriculture groups in the state, some may be made of elected members.
R-CALF asserts that the state beef councils that are not overseen by a government entity, and are not composed of members appointed by a government employee, do not produce government speech, and are therefore violating the first amendment rights of those who are forced to pay the beef checkoff.
The lawsuit calls for a permanent injunction to stop beef council groups in Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin from withholding any portion of the checkoff dollar in their state unless they get consent from the individual paying the checkoff. These state groups are targeted because their boards are not under a government umbrella and are therefore not producing “government speech,” making it unconstitutional for them to use money for “promotion, education and research,” that is derived from a mandatory collection program.
Every state beef council is charged with collecting the $1 per head mandatory beef checkoff each time a beef animal changes ownership. The state beef councils are required to forward half of their collections to the CBB. Many state beef councils voluntarily send additional money to an NCBA committee called the Federation of State Beef Councils, which is another entity outside of USDA oversight.
Because of an earlier court ruling in R-CALF’s favor, the Montana State Beef Council is no longer allowed to keep half of the checkoff dollar without written consent by each payer of the checkoff.
R-CALF USA checkoff committee chairman Vaughn Meyer points out that most of the checkoff funds end up in the hands of the NCBA, a group that R-CALF USA believes supports policy contrary to the success of independent cattle producers. “82 percent of NCBA’s funding is derived from the beef checkoff,” he said. According to Meyer, the NCBA’s access to millions of checkoff dollars helped the NCBA and other checkoff recipients to kill the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law for beef in 2015.
The R-CALF USA membership supports policy that calls for a repeal of the current checkoff. “We also have policy that says no lobbying group should be eligible to receive checkoff funds, there should be an absolute separation between NCBA and the Federation of State Beef Councils, and that checkoff dollars should be allowed to promote USA beef. If those reforms were achieved, this would no longer be the current program we are supporting the repeal of.” Checkoff-funded advertisements do not currently promote USA beef.
But NCBA believes the checkoff helps sell more beef and increases the value of US cattle.
“The beef checkoff continues to provide important benefits for cattle producers in the form of research and promotion that returns nearly $12 for every dollar invested in the program. The Beef Checkoff is weakened, and the benefits it provides our industry are put in jeopardy, by lawsuits such as this one,” said Woodall. “We’re committed to defending state beef councils from these attacks and ensuring producers at the grassroots level continue to determine how checkoff dollars are invested in their states.”