Tennessee's fair welfare

Tennessee's fair welfare

September 10th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

It's fair time in Tennessee. The Tennessee State Fair is in the middle of its annual 10-day run at the fairgrounds in Nashville. Closer to home, the Polk County Fair begins today and the Warren County Agriculture and Livestock Fair continues until Saturday.

Over the next few weeks, thousands of Tennesseans will enter the turnstiles at their local fairground so that they can get whipped around by some vertigo-inducing rides, watch pigs race, look on as cars wreck into each other on purpose, see what this year's blue ribbon-winning okra looks like, pet some really big cows and eat lots of fried food -- most of which is on a stick. Sounds like a priceless experience, right? Well, it turns out that this priceless experience comes with a considerable cost.

This year, state taxpayers shelled out $174,532 to subsidize fairs and livestock shows in Tennessee.

The state Department of Agriculture, which manages this welfare program for fairs, hands out tax dollars to 80 fairs and livestock shows each year -- all in the name of promoting Tennessee agriculture.

Fairs and livestock shows benefit from two different types of taxpayer-financed subsidies: state aid and merit awards.

State aid giveaways subsidize the premiums that fairs pay for agricultural displays and competitions. That means the blue ribbons won by prizewinning fruits, vegetables, canned goods and farm animals amount to price tags for taxpayers. Tax dollars commonly fund up to half of the prize money awarded by fairs and livestock shows. This year, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture handed out $104,767 in state aid.

In addition to the state aid, taxpayers also funded an additional $69,765 in merit awards. These merit awards are payments to Tennessee fairs and livestock shows as rewards for routine activities that they should be doing anyway, such as maintaining clean rest rooms and concession areas, and offering reasonable prices for midway rides and amusements. The free market already provides incentives to fairs for cleanliness and affordability in the form of greater attendance. Tens of thousands of hard-earned tax dollars are not needed to sweeten the deal.

The 80 fairs and livestock shows receiving state funds this year include:

• Tennessee State Fair (Nashville) -- $12,000;

• Tennessee Valley Fair (Knoxville) -- $12,000;

• Appalachian Fair (Gray) --$10,684;

• Wilson County Fair (Lebanon) -- $10,615;

• Lincoln County Fair (Fayetteville) -- $9,728;

• Obion County Fair (Union City) -- $7,387;

• Dyer County Fair (Dyersburg) -- $4,446;

• Putnam County Fair (Cookeville) -- $3,126;

• Henderson County Free Fair (Lexington) -- $1,526;

• Clarksville Area Junior Better Beef Steer Show (Guthrie, Ky.) -- $1,156;

• Heart of Tennessee Junior Meat Goat Classic (Mufreesboro) -- $710; and

• Building Better Beef Feeder Calf Show (Fayetteville) -- $324.

Some of the fairs and livestock shows in our area that are on the dole are:

• Warren County Fair (McMinnville) -- $3,939;

• Mideast Tennessee Regional Fair (Athens) -- $1,288;

• Sequatchie County Fair (Dunlap) -- $1,255;

• Franklin County Fair (Winchester) -- $1,134;

• Rhea County Fair (Evensville) -- $902

• Polk County Fair (Benton) -- $764;

• Bledsoe County Fair (Pikeville) -- $748; and

• Bradley County 4-H Spring Steer Show (Cleveland) -- $113.

While there is no indication that Tennessee's farmers have benefited from this welfare system, there is no question that years of six-figure fair subsidies have lightened taxpayers' wallets.

Since these payments to fairs and livestock shows come from state general fund appropriations to the Department of Agriculture, a portion of the award money won by the prized pig or perfect pumpkin at the county fair can be traced to taxes you paid during your last trip to the grocery store or on the clothes you bought for your children. The Department of Agriculture's use of tax dollars to subsidize fairs and livestock shows deserves a blue ribbon for wasteful spending.