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Fund sweep illegal; ag groups vindicated

A consortium of agricultural interests claimed victory July 9 after a judge ruled the Arizona Legislature acted illegally last year when it swept $160,000 from accounts that held voluntary, private contributions.

The lawsuit targeted former Gov. Janet Napolitano, State Treasurer Dean Martin, Attorney General Terry Goddard, former House Speaker Jim Weiers and former Senate President Tim Bee.The Arizona Farm Bureau and several other organizations filed a lawsuit in September, challenging the state’s authority to seize the money in funds held by the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council and the Arizona Citrus Research Council. Lawmakers had attempted to use the money to fill a gap in the state budget.

The accounts were operated by the government, but they held a mix of voluntary private contributions and mandatory industry fees meant to pay for agricultural research projects and advertising campaigns.

The Arizona Farm Bureau was joined in the lawsuit by the Western Growers Association, Arizona Wheat Growers Association and the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association. The parties maintained the fund sweeps violated the Arizona and U.S. constitutions.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Craig Blakey agreed, tossing aside arguments made by the Attorney General’s Office that the state’s authorization and maintenance of the accounts left the money fit for the Legislature’s taking during a budget crisis.

During oral arguments in May, Michelle Swann, an attorney for the intervening Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council, said the forced transfer could not be placed into the fiscal 2009 budget package because that change was substantive and could not be seen purely as an appropriations matter.

Attorney Jeffrey Parham, who represented the farming interests, said the fund sweeps violated the purposes of the accounts.

In a one-page ruling, Blakey noted the state could not take the funds without first altering the laws that authorized the accounts.

Joe Sigg, a lobbyist with the Arizona Farm Bureau, said the ruling proves the money was never intended for government use. He said industry members simply would have stopped contributing to the accounts if the state was allowed to take the money.

Anna Marie Knorr, a government liaison with the Western Growers Association, said the most important result is that farmers don’t have to worry about future raids by lawmakers.

“We believe we’ve been able to educate the majority of legislators on these funds, and they understand and don’t feel the need to sweep them,” she said, adding lawmakers did not include similar sweeps in this year’s budget.

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