Amid all the legislative goings-on at Springfield, an amendment to the Illinois Wheat Development Act received little attention when Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed it. It is a small step, but one that was deemed necessary if the state’s wheat growers ever decide to go forward with a referendum that could lead to a checkoff.

House Bill 2709 actually includes a couple of changes to the original Illinois Wheat Act, both minor. One alters language of the act, changing the assessment from 1.5 cents per bushel to an unspecified amount “up to” 1.5 cents per bushel. The other change extends the period for refund requests from 60 days to 90 days.

The legislation does not in any way move the Illinois Wheat Association any closer to requesting a referendum for a checkoff. But it does set guidelines in the event such a referendum is made. The wheat act serves as the basis for any such action and must be in place before a checkoff can be implemented.

If the Illinois Wheat Association is dancing around a checkoff, it is taking baby steps. The board of directors has exhibited little enthusiasm for pursuing one, still smarting from the trouncing of the referendum put on the ballot back in 1998.

But that was then, and this is now. Things have changed in 15 years. Chief among them is the decrease in state-funded research on production.

A state faced with such budget minefields as unfunded pension liabilities of nearly $100 billion is simply unable to continue to fund — to the same degree as in the past — such discretionary programs as the university agricultural Extension system.

Coupled with government missteps, including a huge increase in income taxes and an onerous workers compensation system, wheat research occupies a seat in the nosebleed section of the stadium.

There also is the matter of history. While there still are plenty of detractors, checkoffs don’t carry the same stigma as they once did.

One reason may be the success of the soybean and corn checkoffs. Regardless of how much credit may be taken by the checkoff boards, the fact is that ag commodity prices have risen substantially and do not look to be crashing anytime soon.

In addition, growers are enjoying good yields, but it is obvious wheat yields are not improving at nearly the same pace as those of corn or even soybeans. Such a disparity could be one factor driving a call for more investment in wheat.

That doesn’t mean a checkoff is inevitable or even desirable. The wheat association board is understandably gun-shy about even proposing a referendum.

But the time may come. Illinois is one of the few major wheat-producing states without a checkoff.

Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, spoke to the board last year, offering some advice on pursuing a checkoff, gleaned from experience. Timing is key, he said.

That is doubtless true. The question is: Will there ever be a better time? Wheat growers will have to decide that.