North Dakota Legislature mulls doubling the $1 beef checkoff; cattle groups split on measure



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BISMARCK, North Dakota — North Dakota cattle groups are locking horns over a proposal to double the $1-per-head checkoff that ranchers pay when they sell cattle.

The North Dakota Stockmen's Association wants lawmakers to approve legislation that would increase the checkoff to $2 per head to provide more money for beef research, education and promotion. Ranchers would have the option of asking for a refund of the additional dollar, effectively making participation voluntary.

"If you don't like the checkoff increase, you can ask for a return of that money," said Republican Sen. Sen. Robert Erbele, a Lehr rancher and a sponsor of the bill. "It doesn't get any better than that."

North Dakota's House last month voted 69-22 to approve the measure. The Senate Agriculture Committee heard testimony on the measure Friday but took no action. The full Senate will vote on the bill later.

The North Dakota Farmers Union and the Independent Beef Association of North Dakota oppose the fee increase, saying it amounts to a tax and that ranchers should have the opportunity to vote on the proposal. The North Dakota Farmers Union has about 40,000 members. IBAND was formed eight years ago by ranchers unhappy with the Stockman's Association.

IBAND Chairman Larry Kinev, who has a ranch about 50 miles east of Bismarck, said the current checkoff has done little to help North Dakota ranchers.

"I'd like to see all the money stay in North Dakota," he said.

"This is a tax, not an assessment," said Frank Tomac, who ranches in Sioux County, in south-central North Dakota. "If those taxes have no benefits, rewards or returns, then its taxation without representation."

Congress authorized the national beef checkoff program at the $1-per-head level in 1985. The North Dakota Beef Commission is required to forward half of the money collected from ranchers in the state to a national beef board. The other half can be used in-state or for national efforts.

Nancy Jo Bateman, executive director of the North Dakota Beef Commission, said the group has collected an average of about $1.2 million annually in checkoff fees in recent years from the state's cattle operations.

The measure pushed by the Stockmen's Association would send half of the $2 checkoff to the national board and the other half would stay with the state Beef Commission.

Any increase at the state level would stop if the checkoff is increased nationally, under the proposed measure.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the Stockmen's Association, said the current fee hasn't been hasn't changed for three decades, prompting a dozen other states to increase it at the state level in recent years.

"The assessment today is $1 per head, the same as when the checkoff first came to be," Ellingson said. "But our dollar doesn't stretch as far as it used to."

Supporters of the checkoff increase say the beef industry faces increasing attacks from activist organization, and the extra money is needed for promotion and research.

"The beef community faces challenges from outside influencers who are continually spreading misinformation about our livelihood," said Sheyna Strommen, who raises cattle near Fort Rice.

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