Attorneys for farmers and the state of Arizona argued in front of a Maricopa County Superior Court judge on May 18 over the legality of the Legislature’s 2008 fund sweep of money meant to advance agriculture interests.
In September, the Arizona Farm Bureau, the Western Growers Association, Arizona Wheat Growers Association and the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association challenged a provision of the fiscal 2009 state budget that called for pulling roughly $160,000 from several state-operated agricultural accounts.
The group of farmers claims the state violated the U.S. and Arizona constitutions by illegally sweeping funds, which were voluntary private contributions meant to pay for agricultural research projects and advertising campaigns.
The funds were operated by the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, the Arizona Grain Research Fund and the Arizona Citrus Research Council Fund.
Attorney Michael Parham, representing the farming interests, told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Craig Blakey the sweeps violated the purposes of the funds that are clearly laid out in state law.
“The Legislature is violating terms of the statute,” he said, noting the funds’ underlying statutory language was not altered by state lawmakers before the money was taken.
As such, the money cannot be raided by state lawmakers and put towards the state’s general fund to be applied to other services without violating the state constitution, said Parham.
The fund sweep was also attacked by Michelle Swann, attorney for the intervening Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council. Swann said the forced transfer could not be placed into the fiscal 2009 budget package because that change is substantive and could not be seen as purely an appropriations matter.
Swann said the funds more closely resemble a trust containing privately raised money, which is off-limits to lawmakers.
“It’s not a reduction of money that has ever belonged to the state,” she said. “The state hasn’t paid a dime.”
That contention was contested by Assistant Attorney General Bill Richards, who in defending the Legislature’s appropriation, said the origin of both the funds and their corresponding councils come from legislation from state lawmakers, making the money fair game.
“They themselves are state agencies,” Richards said, of the councils. “They aren’t some kind of independent entity.”
Richards said state law permits charging agricultural interests with misdemeanor crimes if they fail to pay into the accounts, which are also operated and maintained by the state.
Richards said the fund sweep was little more than a “balance transfer” from one state agency to another. Specific purposes for the funds listed in statute are there to hamstring the councils from using the money for other purposes, not to limit lawmakers, he said.
The assistant attorney general further warned that Blakely should be “particularly sensitive” from constraining the Legislature’s authority during “unparalleled” budget problems.
The lawsuit targets former Gov. Janet Napolitano, State Treasurer Dean Martin, Attorney General Terry Goddard, former House Speaker Jim Weiers and former Senate President Tim Bee.
Blakey gave no indication on when he would issue a ruling on the case.