Arizona agriculture has its day in court

Arizona agriculture had its day in court on May 18 arguing that state of Arizona funding sweeps of $161,400 in grower assessment funds last spring was unconstitutional.

The state took the funds held by the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) last year to help balance Arizona’s $1.2 billion budget shortfall.

Oral arguments were heard by Judge Craig Blakely in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Agricultural groups filed lawsuits against former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, State Treasurer Dean Martin, former State Senate President Tim Bee, and former House Speaker Jim Weiers.

Attorneys representing the Arizona Grain Research and Protection Council (AGRPC), Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association (YFVA), Arizona Farm Bureau, and Western Growers argued in court that the funds belong to growers, not the state, and should be returned.

The funds generated through commodity assessments support commodity research, promotion, and other projects. YFVA dollars help financially support food safety research for the leafy greens vegetable industry.

The swept funds include $80,000 from the AGRPC, $41,400 from the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, and $40,000 from the Arizona Citrus Research Council.

The councils operate under the ADA which collects grower funds for the council and releases the funds at the councils’ requests.

AGRPC chairman David Sharp attended the hearing but needed a “seatbelt” to refrain from voicing his opinions.

“The most exciting part of the hearing was Judge Blakely had done his homework and asked some good questions,” Sharp said the day after the hearing during the AGRPC’s May meeting.

“I think the odds are slightly in our favor if the judge strictly considers the law,” Sharp said.

The state is the custodian of the AGRPC’s funds, Sharp believes. The money is held in trust.

“We want the growers’ money back. We also want a summary judgment which would basically provide us with a document that could be presented to the Legislature to keep them from taking the Council’s money in the future,” Sharp said.

Don Butler, director, Arizona Department of Agriculture, said, “I think the decision will come down in our (agriculture’s) favor.”

It’s unclear when the judge will issue an opinion. Sharp said the judge rotates to another court at the end of May. The AGRPC is hopeful for a decision by then.

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