According to Chicago legend, a tombstone somewhere in the city reads: “John Smith, Born 1934, Died 1981, Voted 1984, 1988, 1992.” What makes the joke funny, of course, is its resemblance to the truth. Chicago’s well-deserved reputation for election shenanigans is just that — well deserved. Despite that legacy, cattle cannot vote in either Chicago or Illinois.
In Ohio, however, they will, on Sept. 24, 25 and 26, when a statewide referendum will ask Buckeye cattle growers to double the current $1 per-head beef checkoff.
Under the federal, nonrefundable beef checkoff, 50 cents of every dollar underwrites national beef promotion and research. The other 50 cents is controlled by state beef councils.
If Ohio beef and dairy producers approve the referendum, the second dollar — which will raise an estimated $1.1 million per year, or three times the state’s current take — will be controlled entirely by the Ohio Beef Council. The second dollar, though, will be refundable upon request.
For the referendum to pass, however, explains Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of the Ohio Beef Council, it must be approved by two-thirds of those voting who also represent 51 percent of the cattle voting. Yep, two-thirds of all voters holding 51 percent of the cattle voting must approve the referendum for Ohio to collect the second dollar.
That seems like a tall fence but in reality, says Dave Hutchins, an Ohio member of Buckeye Quality Beef and R-CALF, a Montana-based beef group, it’s easy to do both without breaking stride.
The key is that anyone who was nicked by the $1 federal checkoff in the last year can vote. That means any 9-year-old or 16-year-old or 60-year-old who sold one or 1,000 head of cows, calves or canners and paid the checkoff is eligible to vote.
It also means that the two-thirds majority of humans needed to double the checkoff is easily manipulated by, say, a school bus of farm kids showing up to vote at any polling site in the state — the department of agriculture near Columbus, Ohio State University county extension offices or the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association state office.
That’s right; Ohio cowboys or cow-kids can vote to double their state’s beef checkoff at the office of the state affiliate of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the checkoff’s chief hired hand.
But don’t worry if that appears like a Chicagoan walking into President Obama’s Windy City re-election headquarters to cast a presidential vote because, as state executive, Harsh quickly explains, “It’s the law in Ohio.”
And you can vote by mail, also, on a photocopied ballot from, say, a neighbor or maybe even from a state cattle organization that stands to materially benefit from the passage of the $1 million-per-year referendum. That, too, is the law in Ohio.
In fact, the group that proposed doubling the checkoff, the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, also gathered the necessary petition signatures (just 1,000 of the state’s estimated 15,000 cattle producers) to hold the vote.
It also wrote the ballot question to be voted on and suggested the late September voting dates that, golly gee, fall smack in the middle of corn and soybean harvest.
None of these coincidences are, in fact, coincidental. That’s just the way it is in the $1.5 billion-a-year checkoff industry in American agriculture. Conflict of interest isn’t a worry; it’s a business plan.
Look no further than the entire, five-member team of Ohio’s beef checkoff governing body, the Ohio Beef Council, and the five-person staff of Ohio Cattlemen’s, the state’s chief beef lobby.
All five for both groups are the same people. That’s not unusual in the clubby world of the beef checkoff. The same checkoff employees guarding the purse in 18 states, including Ohio, are the same people with their hand in it.
In checkoff parlance, these folks are known as “two-hat execs;” they are the state’s beef checkoff managers and the state’s head cattle lobbyists.
Eighteen. In charge of tens of millions of checkoff dollars coming in and going out and some, like Ohio, already have their own $1 additional checkoff.
“There’s only one word for that system,” says one state beef official, “and that word is corrupt.” Whew, for a moment I thought the word was going to be “Chicago.”