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Fairs face issues with concealed carry, state aid in coming year

Jan. 12, 2012 | 0 comments

Though it's a rompin' good time at the Wisconsin Fairs Association convention each year, organizers of the state's 76 county and community fairs have some serious concerns going into this year.

Jayme Buttke, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Fairs Association, spoke to Wisconsin State Farmer during a break in her organization's annual convention Monday (Jan. 9) in Wisconsin Dells. Many of her members have concerns about the concealed carry law and how it will affect their fairs.

"There are 76 different ways to run a fair," she said, and that affects how fair organizers can deal with concealed weapons.

"If there's a paid gate, a free gate, a fenced facility - all affects them. Do you decide to post or not? There's been no issue like this before," she explained.

Buttke said that with the change in state law allowing the lawful carrying of concealed weapons with permits, her members have some decisions to make. Those decisions may be linked to county or municipality decisions and ownership of the fairgrounds may determine some decisions. (See related story.)

Another issue of great importance to fair organizers is the amount of state aid that helps fair organizations pay their premiums to ribbon winners.

A 29 percent cut in state aids to fairs was rescinded by Gov. Scott Walker in recent weeks, but Buttke said the aid cut is now in the hands of the legislature's Joint Finance Committee, which hasn't made a decision on it yet.

"We'd love it to happen, but it's in a holding pattern. It's out of our hands," she said.

The governor said on Dec. 28 that he would reverse a so-called "lapse" of $102,083 to county fairs. That means, in theory, that the fairs wouldn't have to take that cut. But now it's up to the legislative budget committee to finalize that decision.

The state budget plan for 2011-13 required lapses of $174 million in general purpose revenues - taxpayer funding. Those lapses mean that state agencies would need to return that money to the state treasury.

And that would include the fair funding, unless the finance committee acts to support the governor's plan to eliminate this lapse.

"Fairs have prepared their budgets and made their plans for the coming year and this is a big deal to many of our fairs, especially the smaller ones that may only have a profit of $500," says Buttke.

No one fair can receive more than $10,000 in state aid and that aid doesn't cover all of the premiums they pay out to entrants. State aid never fully covers the cost of premiums paid by any given fair to its exhibitors, she said.

But the aid has helped keep fairs full of exhibits over the years.

"It all helps," Buttke said. "People who enter projects at the fair don't do it for the money. If you did if for the money, it would never pay for all the time and talent that goes into the project.

"But if you didn't have those premiums I would be extremely concerned about especially our smaller fairs. It would have a very large impact," she added.

Over the years politics and policy have changed the way fairs are supported by state aid.

Through the late 1970s there was a level of support for fairs at $340,000, according to information from Bob Williams, a long-time fair advocate who retired from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

That level was raised to $368,500 during the 1980s and went even higher when the state passed pari-mutuel betting legislation and revenues from dog tracks and lottery profits flowed into fair support, he explained.

The level of fair support from the state was $650,000 from 1991 through 1994 thanks to those gambling funds, and hovered between that level and $585,000 for several years.

But in 2002 the funding dropped dramatically, Williams explained, as lottery money was designated for property tax relief, taking it away from fair support. In 2003 it dropped to $389,000, and for the next three years dropped to $250,000 and could only be used to support premiums to junior exhibitors - not open class exhibitors.

Buttke said that decision hurt many fairs and was later rescinded. For the last few years state aid for fairs has been $395,500, while fairs paid out premiums of over $900,000.

Other issues to fair organizers at this year's convention include food inspections and how to use social media to promote fairs.

"We don't want our fairs to fall behind, so we want to help them learn how social media can be used to benefit their programs," Buttke explained.

There were 1,100 people gathered for the annual fair convention, she said, representing nearly all of the 76 fairs in the state.

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