Lawmakers began debate on a bill Tuesday afternoon that would partially privatize the Nebraska Corn Board.
The Corn Board, established by the Corn Resources Act of 1978, allocates funds for research, education, market development and promotion to expand the demand for and value of Nebraska corn and corn-based products.
Under Legislative Bill 354, called the Nebraska Corn Promotion Act, the Corn Board would no longer be a state entity, but a “quasi-independent” body, according to Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, who introduced the bill.
The bill would allow Nebraska corn producers -- rather than the governor -- to elect Corn Board members. It would also give producers a refund option on the half-a-cent per bushel of corn excise tax (called a checkoff) that they pay at the point of initial sale.
The checkoff funds the activities of the Corn Board.
“Nebraska is only one of two states that have a mandatory checkoff,” Larson said.
Producers would still be required to pay the tax, and initial purchasers -- grain elevator cooperatives, ethanol plants and the like -- would still have to remit the tax to the Department of Agriculture for the Corn Board fund.
Among senators who opposed the bill, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said a state agency should not be collecting funds on behalf of a private entity, which is essentially what the Corn Board would become should the bill pass.
“This money will end up in the coffers of a private organization,” he said.
Chambers also expressed concern over language in the bill that would make any violation of the Nebraska Corn Promotion Act a misdemeanor crime.
Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said that was in the original act to assure that the first buyers collect money for the state.
Other supporters of the bill said it prevents the governor or the Legislature from taking money allocated for the Corn Board out of the general fund to pay for other expenses, as has happened in the past. They argue that the bill gives corn producers more control over the board’s makeup, and allows the board to offer more competitive salaries to attract highly-qualified staff.
Schilz, chair of the Agriculture Committee, called the board a promotional agency and said its staff members require higher wages than those who work for regulatory agencies.
Chambers was the only Agriculture Committee member voting against advancing the bill out of the committee.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, another member of the committee, didn’t vote. He read a list of supporters of the bill who testified during the committee hearing. It included Tim Scheer for the Nebraska Corn Board and Andy Jobman for the Nebraska Corn Growers Association.
“Even my own brother said he would like to see it passed,” Bloomfield said.
But Bloofield said he couldn’t support it because smaller corn farmers wouldn’t go through the process to ask for a refund of their checkoff money because they would likely only get a few dollars.
He said he heard that less than 1 percent of corn farmers would take the refund, but he expected up to 80 percent of larger farmers would take the refund. They could get a larger share, placing the burden on the small producers to fund the Corn Board, he said.
He said that faith can move mountains, but only a check in the bank will head off hard times for farmers.
Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis, a member of the cattleman’s beef board that oversees the beef checkoff, agreed, but said the bill gives people the choice to elect new board members if they aren’t happy with its direction.
“This is a liberalizing and a modernizing of the corn check-off plan that is in place today,” he said.