AgFood Alliance, a new state level independent expenditure committee chaired by AgriGrowth Council executive director Perry Aasness, may signal that the Big Ag and Big Food are going to go big in spending in this year's elections.
Perhaps more importantly, the newly-formed independent expenditure political commitee illustrates how how associations with joint private and public membership work not only to promote policy, but to "elevate" issues to candidates and voters and to spend money to support candidates for offices.
In some ways, the AgriGrowth Council's three-pronged strategic campaign to elect candidates friendly to its policy agenda could be the poster child for the DISCLOSE Act, an effort to put an amendment to the Minnesota state constitution before the voters.
The Agrigrowth Council's 2015 Annual Report lays out its plan for the
The 2015 History has shown us that state election results directly impact the future of food and agriculture in our state. With all 201 Minnesota legislators up for re-election in 2016, AgriGrowth will work to ensure that the voice of our industry is heard by candidates and voters. We will be involved again with the “A Greater Minnesota” Coalition to elevate issues important to Minnesota’s agriculture and food sector. AgriGrowth will also be forming a new independent expenditure political committee to help amplify our ability to support pro-food and ag candidates for offices (page2).
We look forward to learning which candidates might be considered anti-food, as we have yet to meet one.
Lobbying and the AgriGrowth Council
Since 1968, AgriGrowth Council has been representing members from all areas of Minnesota’s food systems and agricultural sectors. In its role as an advocate, convener and trusted information source, AgriGrowth brings together its members for the purpose of engaging in safe and solution-oriented conversations, aimed at finding common-ground.
As a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, AgriGrowth often serves as a sounding board, idea generator and asks the tough questions necessary for moving the food and ag sector and Minnesota forward.
The AgriGrowth Council is a registered association with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board; Aasness and Cory Bennett are registered lobbyists for the association. Bennett also serves other registered associations.
We contacted Aasness by phone and email for this post. In addition to serving as executive director and registered lobbyist for the AgriGrowth Council, he's the chair of the new independent expenditure political committee. Here's his emailed response (quotes in original):
"2016 will be an important election year in Minnesota, with all 201 legislative seats up for election. AgriGrowth believes it's important to engage in efforts that help support the competitiveness and growth of Minnesota's diverse agriculture sector. One of the ways we do so is to help elect pro-ag candidates to the state legislature. As we did during the last election, AgriGrowth will be working with other organizations on these efforts. In addition, AgriGrowth has expanded its ability to participate in elections by forming an independent expenditure political committee called the AgFood Alliance. This entity is meant to complement AgriGrowth’s current efforts to help support and elect pro-agriculture legislators."
The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (CFB) also responded to our questions. According responses by CFB director Gary Goldsmith to email queries, the new IE political committee isn't part of the registered association.
If the AgriGrowth Council wished to attach its good name directly to a contribution, it would have to have to form a political fund (as would any other registered association). Goldsmith writes:
The new organization is organized as an independent expenditure political committee. Being a political committee means that the association operates as an entity separate from any affiliated or supporting association. Technically, a political committee is a group of people, not part of some other association. . . . some people – maybe closely affiliated with another association, got together and formed a political committee. A political committee is never formed by an association. If an existing association wants to use its money to engage in campaign spending, it would register a political fund account. In that case, the account is part of the overall association and the political fund is formed by the association.
So when the 2015 Annual Report of the Agrigrowth Council states, "AgriGrowth will also be forming a new independent expenditure political committee to help amplify our ability to support pro-food and ag candidates for office," don't believe it.
Or when the executive director writes, "AgriGrowth has expanded its ability to participate in elections by forming an independent expenditure political committee called the AgFood Alliance. This entity is meant to complement AgriGrowth’s current efforts to help support and elect pro-agriculture legislators[,]" don't believe him either.
That's against the rules.
We asked "Under what circumstances can it [the AgFood Alliance' give campaign contributions to elected state officials?" Goldsmith responded:
Since this association is registered as an independent expenditure political committee it may not contribute to candidates, to party units, or to general purpose political committees or funds.
At least we won't have to follow the money, as it's not supposed to go anywhere beyond independent expenditures. But there are other vexing ethical questions here.
The one about AgriGrowth Council's public and foreign members
Membership in the AgriGrowth Council's Board of Directors includes a member of the governor's cabinet and the dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at University of Minnesota.
Additionally, the AgriGrowth Council membership roster under "academia and government" includes seven centers at public universities that are part of MnSCU and the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Animal Board of Health (a government agency), and the Canadian Consulate General in Minneapolis.
What is the relationship between public employees, a public agency and centers at public universities and Agri-Growth Council related independent expenditure political committee to support (and possibly oppose) candidates for office?
Will the public centers and public employees recuse themselves from any involvement with the independent expenditure political committee? Will there be a firewall so that no public dollars find their way into the AgFood Alliance coffers? Is there a mean to avoid in-kind contributions of public employees' time?
What will happen if the Agri-Growth Council's independent expenditure political committee supports candidates opposed to the Dayton administration's policy--say the buffer law?
With these sorts of question in mind, asked Goldsmith additional questions via email. Are there any limitations on the government and public higher education members in contributing to the [independent expenditure political committee] ?
Goldsmith: There are no campaign finance limits under Chapter 10A. However, other statutes not under the Board’s jurisdiction may limit the use of government or public education money. Since any such laws would not be under the Board’s jurisdiction, I have never examined whether any exist.
Can a foreign government agency contribute to [an independent expenditure political committee] ?
Goldsmith:No since any political committee or fund is for the purpose of influencing elections, foreign governments and foreign nationals cannot contribute – this is a federal law prohibition
Will that be a problem? Only if that member gives money to the independent expenditure political committee called the AgFood Alliance, which legally was not formed by the AgriGrowth Council, whatever it tells its members in its annual report or to us in emails.
We're still trying to establish if there are laws preventing Minnesota state agencies and centers at public universities from contributing to political committees making independent expenditure to support or oppose legislators who vote on their budgets and shape policy.
While this practice might turn out to be legal, we suspect that it won't pass the average citizen's smell test, just as the legal fiction that independent expenditure political committee wasn't formed by the group that's claiming to form it was part of a three-part strategic plan.
A Greater Minnesota or http://www.farmandfoodmn.org/
Aasness' email alludes to an effort to elect candidates in 2014 that share the AgriGrowth Council's vision of what favoring agriculture and food means:
One of the ways we do so is to help elect pro-ag candidates to the state legislature. As we did during the last election, AgriGrowth will be working with other organizations on these efforts.
As we noted in the beginning of this post, the Annual Report is specific about this endeavor:
AgriGrowth will work to ensure that the voice of our industry is heard by candidates and voters. We will be involved again with the “A Greater Minnesota” Coalition to elevate issues important to Minnesota’s agriculture and food sector.
So what is "A Greater Minnesota"? We live out in it, in sunny Maynard, but on July 28, 2014, AgriNews reported in Minn. farm coalition creates 5-point pledge for state legislators that the AgriGrowth Council, Minnesota Pork Producers Association, the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota and the Minnesota Milk Producers Association had a different definition:
A new coalition of Minnesota food and farm groups is asking state legislative candidates to pledge their support for agriculture.
The coalition, known as A Greater Minnesota, developed its five-point Minnesota Farm and Food Pledge. The goal is raising awareness, particularly among legislative candidates, of farming, food production and their economic impact in the state, coalition officials say.
This effort slipped completely under any campaign finance or lobbying reporting. According to Goldsmith and the records online, "A Greater Minnesota" didn't register as an association nor as any sort of political committee.
In an email, Goldsmith explained the campaign end of the situation:
Since it avoids the “magic words” like vote for, vote against, etc, it’s not an independent expenditure. Even though they got the pledge from the candidates, there is no Board authority on whether that would be the kind of cooperation necessary to make the publication a contribution. With a narrow definition of independent expenditure in Minnesota (and everything that falls outside the definition excluded), it’s easy for organizations to avoid the campaign finance system in Minnesota.
The argument would be that this communication is for the purpose of convincing candidates to support the association’s legislation and to thank those that have pleged to do so, thus ensuring legislative success. That puts it outside the campaign finance system. Sort of like “call Senator ----- and thank her for taking the AGM pledge to protect Minnesota’s family farmers
Short skinny? There's absolutely no transparency for voters or candidates about who is funding this effort. We know who is sponsoring the drive, but there's no disclosure about the source of the money.
While the new independent expenditure political committee maintains the legal illusion that it's not part of the Agri-Growth Council, the AgFood Alliance will eventually disclose its spending, we won't see that from "A Greater Minnesota."
The 2014 pledge
So what are candidates for office supposed to pledge? (And will the independent expenditures--whether direct mail, phone banking, paid media--mention this pledge?)
Under Candidate Spotlight on the A Greater Minnesota website, candidates were asked to agree to this 5 point pledge and voters were asked to pay attention (though never to "vote for" certain candidates):
Meet the candidates running for office and find out if they have taken the pledge to support good Minnesota farms, foods and jobs.
We hope all candidates will take the pledge to:
- Support all responsible Minnesota farmers, whether large or small, traditional or organic.
- Minnesotans have a stake in supporting all farmers in Minnesota who practice responsible farming methods whether the farms are large or small, traditional farming or organic. Fortunately, nearly every Minnesota farmer farms responsibly.
- Support environmental policies that are based on sound science and best practices and do not put MN farmers and food companies at a competitive disadvantage.
- Good MN farmers are responsible stewards of their land and water. After all, they live on the land and have a vested interest in protecting the environment in and around their farms. Farmers will continue to improve upon best practices as better methods are discovered.
- Support the use of best practices in animal care as established by farm animal veterinarians and empower farmers and veterinarians with the responsibility of achieving industry-approved animal care standards.
- Good MN farmers know that the proper and ethical care of their livestock is not only the right way to treat animals, but also results in better food. Many farmers have adopted animal care policies that far exceed what is required by current standards. In recent years, activist groups have painted a distorted picture of animal care practices. In fact, many activist proposals would actually reduce the protection of farm animals from disease and also result in higher food prices.
- Support nutritional and allergy-sensitive food labeling but oppose pseudo-science labeling proposals regarding GMOs.
- Good MN farmers and good MN food companies support food product labeling that helps consumers make informed choices regarding nutritional information and food-allergies. We do not support labeling requirements, however, that are based on pseudo-science or activist agendas such as calling out GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The reality is most foods, even many organics, involve genetic enhancements to improve food quality and reduce the incidence of pests and disease during food production.
- Support responsible regulation and the voluntary practices of MN farmers and food companies to continue to implement best practices to protect the quality of our food and how it is produced.
- Good MN Farms and good MN food companies are intensely focused on ensuring safe food for consumers, often imposing new standards and best practices into their production systems that exceed what is legally required. MN farmers and food producers also support one set of standards for food safety at a federal level. Farmers and food producers across the nation should be required to uphold one uniform set of regulations that make food safety a priority.
Let your candidates know you support the pledge for good Minnesota farms, food and jobs and you want their support for the pledge.
You can register to vote, find out election dates and where to vote, monitor candidate filings and find other answers to commonly asked questions at the Secretary of State website. Voting absentee? Get your ballot online here.
Check back here throughout the fall to see what candidates you should be keeping an eye on and which ones have taken the pledge.
Bluestem trusts that our readers can use reason, Mr. Google and critical thinking to evaluate that agenda which encourages voluntary stewardship, resists environmental regulation based on "competitive" economic factors, rejects labeling the new and improved food known as GMOs, and animal welfare concerns that aren't coming from farmers, pet breeders and veterinarians. What a bandwagon.
Therein followed the pledges. They're still there though we anticipate a change is going to come once the candidate filing period closes.
Though these three efforts--lobbying, candidate and voter "education," and independent expenditures-- may be legal, together, they created the sort of tangled web that may cause ordinary citizens to think that while all Americans are equal, some corporations and nonprofits are more equal.
Is the DISCLOSE Act a piece the transparency solution?
Those "issue communications" like A Greater Minnesota could be a thing of the past if Minority Leader Paul Thissen, members of his caucus and good/transparent government advocates get their way. Last week at the Star Tribune, J. Patrick Coolican reported in House DFL proposes constitutional amendment for campaign money disclosure:
House DFLers proposed a state constitutional amendment Thursday that would make it easier to see who is giving money to efforts aiding candidates, the latest twist in an ongoing feud over the disclosure of campaign contributions.
Current law shields certain groups from having to disclose money they raise and spend as long as it is spent on so-called issue-based advertising that does not expressly say “vote for” or “vote against” a candidate.
The DFL says that’s a loophole and the proposed amendment would close it, requiring the groups to disclose where they receive the money and how they spend it.
A constitutional amendment would need to pass both houses of the Legislature to appear on the ballot and then be approved by the voters in November.
“It’s time for politicians to … give Minnesota voters the opportunity to decide for themselves if they have a right to know who is spending money to influence their vote,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
Coolican reported that that Republican lawmakers responded to the proposal as if requiring disclosure for "issue" communications were solely a partisan battle. Both Republican and Democratic candidates signed that pledge, without clear disclosure of who was paying how much for its promotion among voters.
We'll eventually know who is giving money to the AgFood Alliance, but as in 2014, there will be no full transparency about two of the other tines of the AgriGrowth Council's forking out the barn of ag policy. DISCLOSE would at least let us see two-thirds of the effort.
Photos: A modern manure sprayer (above); screengrab of the Candidate Spotlight at "A Greater Minnesota"/www.farmandfoodmn.org.
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