(Oct. 6, 2:28 p.m.) For the second consecutive year, Arizona politicians have balanced the state budget by grabbing funds paid by growers.

This time, the growers are fighting back in court.

A coalition of agricultural groups filed suit, charging the raid on research funds violates the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.

“We’re very hopeful; we believe we have a good case,” said AnnaMarie Knorr, Arizona governmental affairs manager for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

The funds targeted in the suit support the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, the Arizona Grain Research Fund and the Arizona Citrus Research Council Fund, Knorr said.
Over the last six years, spending by Arizona lawmakers has outpaced actual growth and inflation by $2 billion, Knorr said. The state’s fiscal 2009 budget of $9.9 billion includes $11 million transferred from a variety of boards and commissions to the general fund, more than $500,000 of that amount from agriculture, she said.

“Farmers should not be forced to foot the bill for irresponsible budgeting,” Knorr said.

The suit asks the court to halt further transfers of the funds and to reimburse the groups for the money that has already been taken.

The next step in the lawsuit, filed in early September by Western Growers, the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, the Arizona Wheat Growers Association and the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, is for the state to respond. Then, the coalition will file a motion for a summary judgment, said Robert Shuler, lobbyist for Western Growers.

For fiscal 2008, Arizona lawmakers dipped into the state department of agriculture’s regulatory funds, such as pesticide regulation license fees. The logic provided last year to the department and to growers, Shuler said, was that the programs were run so efficiently that excess regulatory funds could be taken without affecting the programs.

This year, the politicians became more aggressive.

“They took even more funds, cut the department of agriculture’s general fund contribution by $1.1 million and, then gave the department the authority to raise fees on those same regulatory funds to offset the general fund cut,” Shuler said.

What is most frustrating for growers, Knorr said, is that the state is “sweeping” funds that have been generated by voluntary grower fees and earmarked for research.

“These funds go for research in the state’s $9 billion ag industry,” Knorr said.

The sweeping of voluntary funds is not new to Arizona, Shuler said. A similar tactic was used in 2000 when the target was the Mobile Homeowners Property Relocation Fund. That effort resulted in a lawsuit, and the lawmakers backed down, he said.

Nearly 20 years ago, California politicians attempted to use a similar ploy to sweep regulatory funds to balance the state budget, Shuler said. The resulting outrage among growers’ groups forced the lawmakers to abandon the plan, he said, and the California legislature eventually passed a law directing voluntary grower fees be placed in trust accounts that are impervious to political sweeping.

If the Arizona coalition prevails in court, the state’s budget may come under attack from other groups. The sweeping of funds was not limited to agriculture, Knorr said. Other groups affected include pharmaceutical and dental boards.

“They’re watching this case very closely,” Knorr said. “If we prevail, they feel they will have the opportunity to do the same.”