A Maricopa County, Ariz., judge has ruled that former Gov. Janet Napolitano and lawmakers illegally commandeered $161,400 in cash from Arizona growers paid to support the research and promotion of farm products.

Superior Court Judge Craig Blakey II ruled the funds taken by the state to balance the budget were collected specifically for the marketing, promotion, and research of Arizona agricultural products and not intended to support the state’s general fund.

The funds included $80,000 from the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council (AGRPC); $41,400 from the Arizona Iceberg Lettuce Research Council, and $40,000 from the Arizona Citrus Research Council.

The state seized the funds held by the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) which collects grower funds and releases dollars at the organizations’ requests.

Arizona farm groups filed a lawsuit against the state, challenging the bureaucratic taking, including the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation (AZFB), Western Growers, Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, Arizona Wheat Growers, and the AGRPC.

“I think the decision tells the Legislature that (commodity) funds are off the table,” said Kevin Rogers, AZFB president and a Phoenix Valley farmer. “We’re very pleased that Judge Blakey agreed with the agricultural community.”

David Sharp, AGRPC chair and a Roll, Ariz., wheat grower, calls the decision a huge victory for Arizona agriculture. “The judge is telling the state that it lacked the statutory authority to sweep the agricultural funds.”

When the state took the money the councils’ long-term research and promotion plans were in limbo amid uncertainty that the state could raid future assessments. New Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature are deadlocked on how to erase a $3.2 million shortfall in the 2010 state budget which began July 1.

“The ruling proves the small guy can take on government and win,” Sharp said.

Gov. Brewer replaced Napolitano who was named last fall by President Obama as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

email: cblake@farmpress.com