(June 29) WENATCHEE, Wash. — In an about-face, the Washington Apple Commission has decided to fund the Yakima-based Northwest Horticultural Council.

The decision comes as the commission considers its future.

Commissioners in a June 14 telephone conference meeting unanimously voted to provide the council $379,604.

Commission support has in the past been responsible for funding more than half of the council’s budget. The council conducts national and international trade and export issues work for Washington, Oregon and Idaho apple, cherry and pear grower-shippers.

The commission in March voted to end its funding, saying voluntary industry funds instead of compulsory commission per-box assessments should support the council.

A June 1 settlement order by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea, however, further clouded the commission’s work when he continued jurisdiction over the settlement agreement, said commission manager Dave Carlson.

Though the commission is now a state agency, Carlson said the judge didn’t define which commission activities were and were not speech-related.

The judge in March 2003 ruled against the commission’s domestic marketing, saying its compulsory per-box assessments violated growers’ free speech rights. The commission then cut staff and slashed its per-box assessments from 40 cents to 3½ cents.

Carlson said he thought a law that took effect June 10 making the commission a state agency would have precedence over the settlement issue.

A deal to fund the council through the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, Yakima, fell through after three of Yakima shippers’ larger packers said they thought the commission — as part of its settlement — should fund the council, said council president Chris Schlect.

The commission’s funding accounts for 48% of the council’s $791,900 fiscal year 2005 budget, which has been cut from fiscal year 2004’s $955,753. The 2005 fiscal year starts July 1.

The U.S. Supreme Court also could determine the commission’s future, Carlson said.

The court in late May announced it would this fall decide whether a beef farmer-funded U.S. Department of Agriculture marketing program violates cattle farmers’ free speech rights.

Schlect said the case could either solidify the commission’s council funding or prompt the industry to find new ways fund its work, which is now being done by a staff of four instead of its previous five-person office.