The District Court for the District of Montana has allowed the Montana Beef Council, Nebraska Beef Council, Pennsylvania Beef Council, Texas Beef Council, and three individuals to join in R-CALF USA's beef checkoff lawsuit, a request made with R-CALF USA's consent. The lawsuit was recently expanded to include 15 state beef councils, including those now joined as parties.
Chaley Harney, executive director for the Montana Beef Council, said they entered the lawsuit to make sure that the voice of Montana cattlemen is heard directly on the issue which impacts them so greatly. Because of the original lawsuit which required Montana beef producers to consent to their funds being directed to the state beef council, in-state funds have dropped considerably for use in Montana.
In October 2018, the new fiscal year began and the MBC board set a tentative work plan to invest $825,000 into programs of beef promotion, education, consumer information, industry information and producer communications in fiscal year 2019. Programs approved could be funded through Montana’s 50 cent in-state portion of the $1- per-head beef checkoff, after Montana producers provide affirmative consent to MBC to retain that portion of their assessment.
Harney explained in 2018, the state anticipated to bring in $860,000 (the Montana 50 cents of the $1 checkoff). However, she said they were only able to redeem $195,459 consented dollars. Meanwhile, the administrative budget did not decrease and $320,874 was expended to carry out the required duties as a Qualified State Beef Council.
In their request to join the case, the beef councils argued they are entitled to join because their interests in accessing and using beef checkoff money are different from those of the government. They explained they are entitled to retain "state-specific control" over the checkoff money, where the state activities are directed by a non-governmental board, without committing to input from all producers. R-CALF USA stated this is in direct contradiction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) statements that it remedies the earlier constitutional problems with the beef checkoff program by requiring all councils to subject themselves to USDA review.
R-CALF USA also explained that for the beef checkoff program to be constitutional it must only produce government speech, which is speech controlled by the federal government, not subject to local or state control by nongovernmental entities. Therefore, R-CALF USA stated it would agree to the councils entering the case because their statements are proof that the councils are using producers' checkoff tax dollars to fund private speech. As one example, R-CALF USA pointed out that the government did not agree to the councils' request to join the case as parties. Yet, the councils have expended checkoff taxes to do just that.
The case will now go forward with the councils as intervening-Defendants. "This will allow R-CALF USA to uncover how the councils decide to expend checkoff dollars, helping producers be better informed about how their money is used or misused by the state beef councils," said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.
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.