By Scott Reeder
SPRINGFIELD Ė When I was a kid, I showed cattle and hogs at the fair.†
In fact, the purple champion ribbon I received more than 30 years ago for my Charolais heifer dangles in the bedroom where my 6-year-old daughter sleeps.
She finds it odd that cows have beauty contests.
As an adult, Iím more perplexed that government subsidizes the activity by giving public dollars for prize money to adults who participate in such activities.
Is giving cash awards for the best flower arrangements, prettiest peck of potatoes or finest calf really a core government function?
After all, the Department of Agriculture is shutting down an animal disease laboratory this year that some veterinarians contend will leave the state unprepared for potential epidemics.
And the state is paying its bills many months late.
But we have money to pay out prizes for flower arranging?
It doesnít make much sense.
But state law requires the Department of Agriculture to operate the fair. †
Back in 1853, Illinois had its first state fair, and it doled out $944 in prizes to folks showing the best potatoes, steers and what not.
Assuming prizes grew at the rate of inflation, this year the fair ought to be giving $24,491 in prizes.
Instead, the state will be giving out $883,500 in premiums to contestants competing this week in Springfield.
Thatís a growth rate 36 times the rate of inflation.
Maybe some of that super-secret fertilizer that makes for fair-worthy giant tomatoes and watermelons has also been poured on that budget item. †
After all, anyone who has spent much time with the Illinois Legislature will tell you itís a regular fertilizer factory.
Itís worth noting that the prize money Iím talking about is for contests adults enter.
Separate line items exist in the budget for youth programs like 4-H and FFA. (4-Hers will receive $786,400 in prizes this year at the various fairs across the state and their FFA counterparts will get $325,000.)
So weíre talking prizes for the middle Ėaged gardener who wants to show off his prize petunias not the 4-Her with two lambs in tow.
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said no tax dollars will go toward paying for the prizes, which are also known as premiums. Instead, he says, the money will come from fair admission fees and what not.
Time will tell if this is really the case.
The State Fair has a long history of being a money loser.
And when it does run short, the Ag Department goes hat in hand to the Legislature asking for money.
Between 2001 and 2009 the state fairs in Springfield and DuQuoin lost $41.8 million.
Itís possible that this year the fair will operate in a fiscally prudent manner.
Itís also possible youíll find a low-calorie desert at a funnel-cake stand.
But I wouldnít count on either.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute.