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Some legislators urge elections for wheat commission

PIERRE — As a major increase in the assessment fee paid by South Dakota wheat producers is chugging through the Legislature, a state lawmaker from Brown County wants to change how members are selected to the state board that oversees the spending.

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Participating wheat growers would elect the members under the proposal from Rep. Dennis Feickert, D-Aberdeen. That would replace the present system where the governor appoints the five.

Feickert's legislation, HB 1195, represents the viewpoint of South Dakota Farmers Union on the matter.

His bill was assigned to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee for its hearing. The chairman, Rep. Charlie Hoffman, R-Eureka, hasn't publicly scheduled the date yet.

Feickert has just one Republican -- Rep. Justin Cronin of Gettysburg -- and six Democrats as co-sponsors on the bill. That reliance on the Legislature's minority party isn't good odds for the bill's success.

The farmer-rancher and retired firefighter said electing the commission members would bring the wheat check-off program into line with other commodity groups that invest producers' money in research and marketing.

"It's kind of an ongoing part of opening things up and a belief that if you're contributing financially you should be part of picking who's going to spend the money," Feickert said.

He added that electing the commissioners is "more important" if the assessment increase is approved by the Legislature this year.

Feickert supported the assessment increase when the House of Representatives took up the issue last month. House members voted 69-4 to approve HB 1081, whose prime sponsor is Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte.

The wheat commission has been working since 2012 on building acceptance for the increase.

Known as the promotional fee, it currently is 1.5 cents per bushel. The plan moving through the Legislature would change that to four-tenths of 1 percent of the net market price a grower receives.

The fee bill's lead sponsor in the Senate is Republican Larry Tidemann of Brookings. Most of the additional money that would be raised through the proposed increase would flow to South Dakota State University for additional wheat research.