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Oklahoma beef checkoff referendum process challenged

Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Assn. defends process taken in calling for vote to increase beef checkoff $1 per head of cattle sold.

A challenge is brewing in Oklahoma over whether the Oklahoma beef checkoff referendum followed state laws.

Oklahoma members of the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) and R-CALF USA joined together to file an application with the Oklahoma Supreme Court for original jurisdiction requesting that the court enter a declaratory judgment and prohibit the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry from certifying the Oklahoma beef checkoff program referendum.

The legal application is in response to the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Assn.'s (OCA) attempt to create a new Oklahoma state beef checkoff program through a referendum that began on Oct. 2, 2017. If passed, the new beef checkoff program would mandate all Oklahoma cattle producers to pay the Oklahoma Beef Council an additional $1 for every head of cattle they sell. Currently, under a federally mandated beef checkoff program, all cattle producers are required to pay $1 per head. This state referendum would bring in an additional $3.2 million per year.

OCA called the groups the “same-out-of-state activist groups that delivered Oklahoma agriculture a blowing defeat on Question 777 last year” and has now turned its attention to the beef checkoff referendum.

Supporters argued that State Question 777, which was on the ballot in 2016, would allow farmers to defend themselves against unjust laws or laws that would harm the industry, make the state more attractive to farmers and allow consumers to decide best farming practices through free market competition.

A statement from OCA said one of the out-of-state groups sent out a memo earlier this month casting a wide net searching for a state beef producers to file the suit. This follows the current misinformation campaign that OCM -- supported by The Humane Society of the United States -- and R-CALF USA are leading in Oklahoma to discourage and deny beef producers the right to vote.

“We are confident in our handling of this referendum and know our actions will withstand the scrutiny,” OCA said. “We worked closely with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry and followed and abided by the state statute when conducting the petition and current checkoff vote. As for the voting process, we have even taken it upon ourselves to put extra measures in place to ensure the integrity of the vote.”

The legal documents filed with the Oklahoma Supreme Court outline what OCM and R-CALF USA call “a series of constitutional and legal irregularities relating to both the petition signature gathering and election processes.” The opponents of the Oklahoma beef checkoff program have been raising these irregularities, stating they create an “unfair and unjust election.” 

OCA said the Oklahoma agriculture department held a public hearing on June 14, 2017, before certifying the petition allowing for the referendum. Individuals who pay the assessment have been able to vote in checkoff referendums since 1988 and in subsequent states checkoff referendums. By state law, this state checkoff is refundable, upon request.

Bryan and Linda Best, who operate L Bar B Farms LLC, an 800-head cow/calf ranch in central Oklahoma, said, "If we cattle producers are going to see our taxes doubled, then we need to have a fair election. The Oklahoma Cattlemen's Assn. based the number of required petition signatures on the number of Oklahoma farms and ranches that have cattle and not on the number of cattle producers in Oklahoma, resulting in thousands too few signatures being submitted to allow for a referendum vote to occur at all. Many of the petition signatures are those of individuals from Texas and other states, names without any signatures and children too young to sign their names. Signers were not even required to provide proof of cattle sales."

John Johnson, a cattle producer from Duncan, Okla., stated, "This referendum is unconstitutional. Here in Oklahoma, we protect our rights as taxpayers by requiring three-quarters of our legislature to approve revenue increases. That did not happen in this case, and the petition signature drive lasted 20 months. That's nearly seven times as long as signature gatherers are given for signature drives. For every other signature drive in Oklahoma, you get 90 days."

The in-person voting on the referendum is to be held on Nov. 1, 2017, and votes can be cast at any Oklahoma extension office. Cattle producers may request a ballot from Oct. 2 to 20, and mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Oct. 27, 2017.

OCA noted that the current attorney for OCM and R-CALF USA is the same attorney who worked to defeat Question 777.

A joint statement from a coalition of Oklahoma agricultural organizations that support the Oklahoma beef referendum stated: "The Oklahoma agriculture community is confident in the process used by cattle producers and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture in preparation for the upcoming referendum. We stand against an effort led by radical activist organizations and their anti-agriculture agenda."

The statement was signed by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, AFR, Oklahoma Limousin Breeders Assn., Oklahoma Maine Anjou Assn., Oklahoma Charolais Assn., Oklahoma Simmental Cattle Assn. and OCA.

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