Proposed state cuts would hit county fairs

OLYMPIA -- For many children, it's the first money they have truly earned, the reward for months of sweat and hard work.

County fair premium money is the nest egg for their first savings accounts. Fair officials and parents say it teaches kids important lessons about the value of hard work when their animals, produce or craft projects win a ribbon -- and a small premium check.

But state budget cuts proposed this year will hit even 4-H kids.

That has the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo and other county fairs statewide asking why that money won't be paid out as promised last year, then cut during the last round of state budget cuts.

Fairs around the state long have been reimbursed by a state grant program for part of the money they pay to award winners.

The state Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, had $1 million in its budget for the program this year. It also was planning to use another $1 million in reserves from the fair fund to pay the program's annual $2 million cost.

But the economy worsened, and in December, Gov. Chris Gregoire revised her budget for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends in June, and the budgeted $1 million was cut and reprogrammed. Instead, officials said more money will go to food banks and other food aid programs, even though the fairs were held last summer and fall, and the money already had been spent.

The Benton Franklin Fair was expecting a check in March for about $50,000. The Central Washington State Fair in Yakima was expecting about $75,000.

"They told us to go ahead, and we would get reimbursed," said Benton Franklin Fair Manager Lori Lancaster. "Now we are facing a $50,000 shortfall."

The state says it also will take the $1 million in reserves and use it for "community and youth fairs," which it says have fewer other funding options.

"A reduction of funding for fairs is not something that anyone wants to do," said Agriculture Department spokesman Jason Kelly. "It's part of economic reality we're forced to face."

Last year, the fairs were worried the bad economy could jeopardize the state reimbursements. But fair officials say they were assured by state ag officials the money would be there.

The Legislature still has to agree to the changes, so the fairs are hoping to get the promised money.

Even if they do, there's no money in the budget for the next two years, so fairs will have to pay less in premiums or pay for them with more of their own money.

That concerns local fair organizers.

Kathy Klaustermeyer of Basin City believes exhibiting in the fair and enjoying the small premium checks teaches children responsibility, public speaking ability and confidence.

"They learn so much from it," Klaustermeyer said. "And they work really, really hard. And ... they have learned another important lesson through participating in the fair.

"One of the lessons is learning how to lose," she added. "It's always easy to win. It's not so easy to lose graciously."

Greg Stewart, president and manager of the Central Washington State Fair, said most of the $130,000 the fair pays out in premiums every year goes to kids.

"They have to put a lot of sweat equity into this, and they may win a $10 premium check," Stewart said.

-- Cathy Kessinger: 509-582-1535; ckessinger@tricityherald.com