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A Utah rancher is challenging the state's "Beef Checkoff" marketing effort, alleging in a lawsuit that the program, with its mandatory assessments, lacks transparency and promotes political advocacy, a violation of the First Amendment.

Evergreen Ranch, an independent cow-calf operation in Eden, filed the complaint against Utah Agriculture Commissioner LuAnn Adams, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in 3rd District Court in May. Utah attorneys are hoping more ranchers will join in the class-action suit.

"The government is taking money from these private citizens and giving it to a private entity that can say whatever it wants," said Karra J. Porter, an attorney with Christensen & Jensen, which is overseeing the case. "They are taking hundreds of thousands of dollars and there is no transparency."

The Beef Checkoff program also is unconstitutional, the suit contends, because ranchers have been forced "to associate with, support or subsidize the private speech of the Utah Beef Council" and other private recipients of the fees on political topics such as endangered species, public lands disputes, greenhouse gas emissions and national monument designations.

Until the lawsuit can be settled, attorneys will seek a preliminary injunction for the upcoming cattle season. "We want people to be able to sell their cattle without having money taken from them," Porter said. The injunction request should be filed sometime this week.

Officials with the UDAF told The Tribune they do not comment on pending litigation.

This is not the first time there has been criticism of the national or state Beef Checkoff program, established in 1985 by Congress.

In 2016 and 2017, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, attempted without success to give farmers and ranchers the chance to opt out of the program.

And in June, a federal judge barred the involuntary collection of the Montana Beef Checkoff Tax after independent ranchers argued that the funds benefited corporations, in violation of the First Amendment.

The Beef Checkoff is touted as a marketing and research program designed to increase domestic and international demand for beef. Ranchers are charged $1.50 per head when selling or slaughtering cattle. UDAF collects the money and sends 50 cents to the federal beef promotion board, while the remaining $1 is given to the Utah Beef Council, which is charged with creating beef promotional campaigns.

During the past four years, $1 million in assessments from the transfers of cattle in Utah has been collected, the suit states.

But the Evergreen Ranch alleges in its lawsuit that the Beef Council's use of the funds lacks accountability. Among the ranch's complaints:

• The council does not submit an annual budget.

• The council is not subject to audit.

• The council uses funds to engage in political advocacy "that is detrimental to independent domestic beef producers because it does not distinguish between imported and domestic beef."

Added Porter: "It's hard to tell what they are using the funds for."

The suit also points out the significant overlap between the Utah Beef Council and the Utah Cattlemen's Association, "a private organization that among other things engages in lobbying political speech and other efforts to influence governmental legislation and policy."

For example, according to the suit:

• The beef council and the cattlemen's association share the same Salt Lake City address, 150 S. 600 East, #10-6.

• Seven of the eight members of the beef council also are members of the cattlemen's board.

• The beef council's executive director is the executive vice president of the cattlemen's group.

• The beef council and the cattlemen's association issue a joint newsletter each month.

The monthly newsletter, the suit claims, "regularly express or encourages support for the Public Lands Council, a private organization that represents cattle and sheep producers who hold public lands grazing permits."

In addition to determining the constitutionality of the Beef Checkoff program, the lawsuit seeks monetary damages, refunds and attorney fees.