Gov. Janet Napolitano lashed out Wednesday at four farm groups who sued her and lawmakers after they balanced the state budget by taking money that members had taxed themselves for special projects.
Napolitano said she was “kind of disappointed” that the groups are trying to convince a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to force the state to give back more than $161,000 it took from the funds.
“They have kids who go to school and they want to drive on safe roads and they want to make sure that prison inmates are guarded,” she said. Napolitano said the state’s tight financial situation justified taking the money.
But Joe Sigg, lobbyist for the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, said Napolitano is wrong in her criticism.
“That’s what taxes are for,” he said of her recitation of state needs, adding those needs do not justify taking money that does not belong to the state.
The funds at issue were raised by fees that lettuce, grain and citrus growers imposed on themselves for research and marketing.
The lawsuit contends the state was simply holding that money “in trust” for the farmers and that it was not state money — and not subject to being raided.
Napolitano, who was instrumental in crafting the budget, defended the move.
She said the ultimate spending plan left “lots of folks unhappy.”
“But, on the other hand, look at what we got,” she said, ticking off additional spending for public schools, keeping pace with enrollment growth at state universities and funding state health care for 1.1 million Arizonans.
She said the move is also legally defensible because when the dollars came into the state treasury they became “public monies.” But Sigg said what the state did is no different, and no more legal, than a private account trustee using the dollars for personal benefit rather than intended purposes.
No date has been set for a court hearing. The governor’s comments come as she acknowledged the budget for the new fiscal year that began July 1 already is running in the red, even with taking the money from the special funds.
Tax collections for July were $90 million below the projections used to come up with the $9.9 billion spending plan. Napolitano said, though, that Republican legislative leaders have not shown any interest in having a special session to fix the problem before lawmakers are scheduled to convene in January.
In the interim, the governor said the state has continued the freeze she imposed last March on filling positions except for health, public safety and positions that generate revenue or manage state investments.
Department of Administration spokesman Alan Ecker reports the number of people in positions subject to the freeze has shrunk by 5.6 percent, from 18,118 to 17,098. And he said even the other half of government not subject to the freeze has seen the number of workers drop slightly, from 20,856 to 20,814.
The lawsuit stems from the fact that the $9.9 billion budget includes more than $276 million taken from various special funds to make up for the fact that tax collections are declining.
Some of those funds were levies raised on particular professions to run regulatory agencies like state boards of nursing, optometry and cosmetology. Other funds “swept” into the budget had been designed for special programs like helping those cheated by registered contractors, assisting crime victims and aiding those in need of housing.