Covering Louisiana

Mar 17, 2014 4:23 PM by AP

Jindal budget short of what ag leader says needed

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said Monday he will have to lay off workers and won't have enough money to fight a dangerous citrus infection in Louisiana if lawmakers pass Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget proposal for his agency.

Strain asked lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee to add $3.9 million in state general fund to his department's budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year above what the governor recommended.

He said Jindal's proposal for the budget year that begins July 1 includes money that isn't expected to be available, dollars that he isn't authorized to spend and inflated assumptions of fee money that will be generated for his agency.

"Either the revenues are overstated or they are funds we cannot spend," Strain said.

Without additional funding, Strain said he won't be able to buy needed equipment, will have to shrink staff and will have trouble battling citrus canker, a bacterial infection that has moved into Louisiana and could endanger the state's citrus industry.

"It's a multimillion dollar industry, and it's under threat right now," said Rep. Chris Leopold, a Republican who represents Plaquemines Parish, where half of Louisiana's 600 acres of citrus orchards are located.

The Department of Agriculture and Forestry's budget has dropped from $114 million five years ago to about $74 million this year. Jindal proposes a $1 million increase, but Strain said the budget proposal assumes $2 million from funding sources that aren't expected to pan out.

Meanwhile, he said federal regulatory mandates are increasing, along with retirement costs and equipment replacement needs. He said his budget has been cut 29 percent since 2008, and he said he's reduced employee ranks by 33 percent.

"We're always, how do you say, dancing trying to make it work by the end of the fiscal year," Strain said.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin didn't necessarily offer hope for Strain about getting more money. He said while the state's financial picture was improving, the progress was slow.

"We've certainly not gotten to the point where we have extra dollars," said Fannin, R-Jonesboro.

Lawmakers are going agency by agency through Jindal's budget proposal and will make changes later in the three-month legislative session, which began last week and must end June 2.

On Monday, the Appropriations Committee reviewed the governor's spending recommendations for most departments overseen by other statewide elected officials.

In an update on its legal case against BP, representatives of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office said more than $35 million has been spent on the state's ongoing litigation against the company over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Much of that money has been paid to outside lawyers who are working on the case.

"We're actually running less than expected," said First Assistant Attorney General Trey Phillips.

Caldwell didn't attend the budget hearing.

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