Legislature's sweep of grower generated funds a poor decision

The Arizona legislature this spring swiped more than $550,000 from Arizona agricultural councils and groups to help solve the state's 2007-2008 $1.2 billion budget shortfall.

Overall, funds were debited from budgets across state government and agriculture's total debits were far less than most. In agriculture's case, some swept funds were from the state's general fund.

Yet $160,000-plus were non-general fund dollars paid through commodity check-offs and taken from three councils: the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council (AGRPC) - $80,000, Arizona Citrus Research Council - $40,000, and the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council - $44,100.

The funds, managed by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, were assessments paid by growers for the betterment of their industries and designed for research and other efforts.

Unfortunately Arizona lawmakers stuck their hands where they don't belong. An irate David Sharp, ACRPC chair and a Yuma, Ariz. wheat farmer, hit the nail right on the head — the funds were raised by farmers to benefit their respective commodities and are not taxpayer dollars for the state to take and use at will.

In 1996, the fungal disease karnal bunt was confirmed in Arizona wheat fields which led to a federal quarantine on Arizona wheat which restricted wheat movement. It was a devastating blow to Arizona wheat growers.

The state government's recent sweep leaves little in the ACRPC's reserve, Sharp says. If a similar catastrophe occurs in the near future, the council is now ill prepared to work toward a timely resolution to the problem. “The state has left us very vulnerable and could ruin our industry by their action,” Sharp said.

A similar sweep occurred in California in the early 1990s to the chagrin of farmers and their farm organizations. Farm leaders successfully convinced state lawmakers to enact legislation protecting grower funds from future sweeps.

The California Cotton Pest Control Board, among other farm groups, now keeps grower funds in a commercial bank for protection.

The Arizona legislature's grower fund sweep has churned up mountains of ill will between farmers and state government. Such takings of private money any other place would be a punishable crime — theft. Perhaps some lawmakers should don new clothing duds from Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, considered America's toughest sheriff by some, who requires all inmates to wear pink underwear.

If the state needs to enrich its rainy day fund, my solution is increased enforcement of Arizona's speeding laws. The state should dramatically expand camera radar statewide and take down the stupid signs along the Loop 101 in Scottsdale that warn drivers of upcoming camera-clicking radar. Every 6,666 tickets at $150 each would raise $1 million annually alone.

That's a lot fairer than taking dollars from law-abiding farmers.

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