Thursday, June 14, 2012

Liberate the soybean farmers!

The American Soybean Association (ASA) this week slammed Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) for proposing that checkoff contributions should be voluntary.

At present, the checkoff programs use the federal government's power of taxation to collect hundreds of millions of dollars each year in mandatory assessments from producers -- whether the producers want to contribute or not -- to be spent on advertising, marketing, research, and plenty of overhead.

The checkoff programs were the focus of scrutiny by USDA's Inspector General, who determined in a March report (.pdf) that the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) "needs to improve its governance over the boards."  AMS took some steps in 2010 to increase oversight and plans to release more detail about procedures the boards should follow in the near future.  A key example in the report came from the soybean checkoff.  According to the Inspector General:
A recent OIG investigative review reported that a subcontractor of the USB [the soybean checkoff board], the United States Soybean Export Council, used subcontracts as a mechanism for paying employees unauthorized bonuses totaling approximately $302,000. The Council’s executives did not obtain authorization from the USB to pay the bonuses. 
The American Soybean Association's vociferous email this week is misleading on several points.

In the email, ASA President Steve Wellman said, “The checkoff is not a tax. It is not something that is imposed upon us as farmers. Rather, it allows farmers to invest our own dollars to conduct research, build markets and create new uses for soy.” I cannot figure out who Wellman thinks he is fooling, checkoff farmers or the general public? For farmers who choose not to contribute voluntarily, the checkoff payment is imposed. The U.S. Department of Justice enforces the mandatory assessments. Although the checkoff collections do not appear in the federal government's official tax accounts, that omission is itself a scandal. In plain English, the checkoff is a tax.

The ASA email continues, “With oversight provided by USDA, producers have taken it upon themselves to fund over $905 million of research, promotion and consumer education programs annually through checkoff activities at no cost to the federal government.” Is that really the number? $905 million?! The USDA Inspector General's report said the soybean oversight problems mentioned above contributed to the IG's concern that "oversight controls were not adequate to prevent or detect the potential misuse of funds."  I would not say that USDA oversight strengthens the case for a mandatory assessment.

Describing the IG report and the soybean checkoff problems in particular, syndicated agricultural policy columnist Alan Guebert wrote in April, "When federal auditors examine almost any aspect of the 18 checkoffs created by Congress, they usually find the worst of times: funds misspent on illegal travel, subcontracts used to funnel money for unauthorized bonuses, no procedures to track money and audit rules so porous that a checkoff-bought Sherman tank could clank through most checkoffs without a question or an eyebrow getting raised."

In DeMint's proposed amendment to the Farm Bill, checkoff contributions would be voluntary and would no longer be enforced by the federal government's power of taxation.  Imagine that! Like every other industry, farmers would be free to contribute or not contribute, as they prefer, to private-sector marketing efforts.

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