ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A push by agricultural groups to avoid an evaluation this year by the state's legislative auditor has raised red flags for some lawmakers.
Lawmakers on Wednesday directed the Office of the Legislative Auditor to audit agricultural commodity councils, over protests from some of those groups that the move is unnecessary and burdensome. Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said the "rampant amount of lobbying" that some of the councils did to have their name taken off the short list of potential audit targets was unusual.
Commodity councils charge farmers a small at the point of sale of their product — from soybeans and corn to beef and potatoes — and use that revenue to fund advertising and research on diseases that affect their crops or animals.
Marty Amundson, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council, wrote a letter to lawmakers on the commission — which sets the legislative auditor's agenda — asking why his organization and other commodity councils were being considered.
"Surely there is a better use of taxpayer dollars to find real problems in government instead of focusing on farmer-led and farmer-funded organizations that are complying with the rules," Amundson wrote.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he's never seen that kind of pushback in his eight years on the Legislative Audit Commission, which sets the auditor's agenda. Amundson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Falk said he's heard from several farmers who don't understand what the fees pay for and wonder if they're being used effectively. Falk said he doesn't expect an audit to show any wrongdoing and that the audit may merely help farmers understand how each organization works.
Despite some initial reservations, Bruce Kleven said the councils he represents aren't opposed to an audit. Kleven said there was confusion about whether the proposed audit would duplicate the yearly financial audits that the Department of Agriculture performs. The legislative auditor's evaluation would focus on programming, including how the money collected is spent and what kind of oversight the councils have.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said officials from commodity councils contacted her to make their case for being taken off the list. Kiffmeyer said she understands it may be time for the state to look at the council's programming: They haven't been audited since being established in 1969.
But she stressed that the councils have received no complaints and said an audit would only be a burden.
"It's a hassle," Kiffmeyer said. "If someone is going to go do an audit of you ... it takes time away from your other duties. It takes time away from your mission."
The Legislative Auditor will also look this year at the state's Councils of Color, medical service in jails and prisons and how the state handles more than $550 million worth of unclaimed property from abandoned savings accounts and deposit boxes.