It's a big logjam now in the 2013 Nebraska Legislature. In the remaining days—the current 90-day session is scheduled to adjourn in early June—debate on many bills will be sidetracked as state senators quarrel over the budget, proposed Medicaid expansion, capital punishment and other controversial measures. Even the designated priority bills of state senators and committees could get left behind in the debate over these issues.
One bill I hope gets its time on legislative floor is LB 354. The bill would restructure the Nebraska Corn Board, moving it out of state government to provide it with more efficiency and flexibility. It would make the corn checkoff program more accountable to producers, too.
Sponsored by State Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, the bill advanced out the Ag Committee and is on general awaiting debate. But the speaker's schedule as of a week ago did not have a scheduled time for LB 354 debate. State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha has made the measure his priority bill.
LB 354 is a precedent-setting measure. The corn checkoff program was created by state statute in 1978 and as such became a state agency. Larson's bill would make it what some refer to as quasi-state agency. The bill, as it stands now, will change the name of the Nebraska Corn Board to the Nebraska Corn Promotion Board. Board members, now appointed by the governor, would be elected by corn growers in their respective districts.
Corn producers sought the checkoff to fund research, education, market development and promotion programs. The checkoff rate today is ½-cent per bushel.
In effect, it's a self-help program. The board doesn't receive money for these programs from state general fund tax revenues. Instead, the funds it spends come from corn producers themselves.
As a state agency housed in the State Office Building, the board must get government approval for purchases, no matter how small. Staff salaries come under state government rules. In one example of the bureaucracy involved, the staff with the board's approval once decided to purchase a small trailer to carry corn promotion materials. The trailer they wanted was made by only one vendor, yet the state required the board to get three bids.
It's also a cumbersome process to get the checkoff rate changed. For a rate increase, a series of approvals are needed at the state level, including that of the governor.
Under LB 354, an increase in the checkoff rate would have to be approved by a majority of growers in a special referendum.
LB 354 provides for a refund provision whereby a producer who doesn't think the board is doing its job can request a full refund. Supporters of the change say this provision and the board member elections make the program more accountable to producers.
As it stands now, the board is not allowed to lobby on state issues. That provision is retained in Larson's bill.
Even as a so-called quasi state agency, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture would retain some administrative roles, such collecting the checkoff fees. The revenue collected in any year would be remitted to the state treasurer, but then credited to the newly created Nebraska Corn Promotion Fund.
By moving out of the State Office Building and shedding some of the state government red tape, the board could work more closely, perhaps even share office space, with other commodity organizations. The board would be able to partner with those groups and others to achieve its goals of promoting and marketing corn.
That's a good deal. After all, the checkoff is a producer-funded program.