By Grant Schulte
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - State money awarded to a Nebraska farm coalition that was formed to fight an animal welfare group is drawing scrutiny from lawmakers, who question why Attorney General Jon Bruning awarded the money from a cash pool intended for environmental issues.
Bruning announced the $100,000 grant this week to "We Support Agriculture," a coalition created to promote farming in the midst of what it perceives as threats to Nebraska's agriculture industry. Bruning praised the group in a statement and encouraged an effort to fight the Humane Society of the United States, a national group that recently opened an office in Omaha.
"In Nebraska, agriculture is more than a resource - it's a way of life," Bruning said. "I'm proud to support efforts to protect the cornerstone of our state economy from the actions of extremist groups like the Humane Society of the United States."
Bruning, a Republican, has launched a primary bid to challenge incumbent Democrat Ben Nelson in the 2012 U.S. Senate race.
Some rural lawmakers and agriculture groups have voiced concern that the U.S. Humane Society, which has pushed for stricter livestock welfare rules in other states, may try to bring the fight to Nebraska.
Joe Maxwell, the Humane Society's rural issues director, said the group will not pursue any ballot initiatives aimed at farming, and does not plan to propose farm- or animal-related legislation this year. Maxwell said the group opened the Nebraska office to help small farms gain access to markets and compete with large-scale operations.
Two state lawmakers and an environmental group questioned whether it's appropriate to use money from the environmental fund to finance the efforts of a private, pro-agriculture group.
"It strikes me as odd, particularly when this coalition doesn't have any record on environmental issues," said Ken Winston, the Nebraska Sierra Club's policy advocate. "It also seems odd if this money is going to an entity that has any kind of political purpose."
State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said his staff is investigating what criteria are in place for groups to receive money from the fund. Haar, a prominent environmental advocate, said he may draft a bill for the regular session if he deems the standards too broad.
"That's public money," said Haar, a Democrat. "It seems strange that a government official could just hand it out at their own discretion. I think we need to find out more about it."
The grant to We Support Agriculture came out of the state's Supplemental Environmental Project fund, a trust overseen by the Attorney General's office. Money in the account comes from settlements with companies accused of environmental violations.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general, Shannon Kingery, said Bruning's office has the sole authority to approve project grants for "environmental safety, training, public awareness, and other issues, as funding is available."
Jay Rempe, a spokesman for the We Support Agriculture coalition, said the group formed in response to the Humane Society of the United States' arrival in Nebraska. It includes the Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Poultry Industries, Nebraska Pork Producers and the Nebraska State Dairy Association.
Rempe said the group plans to use the money to raise awareness about the environmental benefits of modern farming. Rempe said the group did not yet have specifics for its plan, but it could include promotional brochures and videos. He said the group would not use the grant money for a political purpose.
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, a Democrat who sits on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he was unaware of the fund until he read about the grant in a news article. Mello has endorsed the We Support Agriculture group, but said he has questions about how groups qualify for the state money.
"If this was the Nebraska Sierra Club, would the attorney general be giving them $100,000?" Mello said. "That's what I want to find out: Who has discretion here? Where does the money go? Is there a process in place? Is it transparent?"
The Nebraska Democratic Party called on Bruning to stop awarding such grants while he's running for U.S. Senate.
"It looks unseemly for the Attorney General to be making decisions behind closed doors," said spokesman Brandon Lorenz. "Is this really the best use for $100,000 in state money? It looks like the old-fashioned days of handing money out to friends to secure their good favor."
An endorsement from the Nebraska Farm Bureau could give a major boost to any candidate vying for the Senate seat. Republican Gov. Dave Heineman has credited the endorsements of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Right to Life and the National Rifle Association for helping him win the 2006 gubernatorial primary campaign against then-U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne.