by Neil Melancon
While the budget crisis continues in Louisiana, one of the largest parts of the state’s economy hangs in the balance.
Cuts are looming for higher education which produces cutting edge technology for the state’s agriculture sector. Almost every other part of the state budget is constitutionally protected and as such, places like the LSU AgCenter which is responsible for that ag research, are in the crosshairs.
Joe Mapes, an agriculture lobbyist for the Louisiana Farm Bureau, said much of the state’s extension services are in dire jeopardy right now, but there are on-going efforts to save them.
“We’re supposed to be doing research so if we lose dollars for research, we lose that edge,” Mapes said. “Solutions are coming. They’re coming fast. We’re looking at that one penny (sales tax) and what effect it would have on all the industries including agriculture, but we’re working together up here as a team, as is this administration and this legislature.”
Not only are cuts to research possible, but Louisiana stands to be the only state in the nation where sales tax would apply to farm inputs like fertilizer and feed. This would mean farmers would have to pay thousands of dollars per acre per year to feed the world.
“We can’t lose those inputs,” Mapes said. “We’re in the largest row-crop district in the nation, in Louisiana. If we lose the input consideration on fertilizer alone it would wipe out our row-crop industry in Louisiana.”
Budget cuts could potentially affect the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which has already had to cut its budget the last couple of years. Commissioner Mike Strain said further cuts to the budget would compromise his ability to protect farmers and consumers alike.
“If we add additional costs to agriculture, especially now when our commodity prices are low, it may be a fee we simply cannot pay,” And so we have to protect the industries. We simply cannot just say, ‘oh, times are bad that we’re just going to go ahead and do these things.’ So we’re negotiating that now at the Capitol.
“I want to thank Farm Bureau for having their team in place, as well,” Strain added. “However, we need everybody to pay close attention to what’s going on, because when they are rewriting the fiscal policy of the state, it’s also the economic policy of the state.”
Clay Shexnayder, chair of the Louisiana House Ag Committee, said coming from a farm background, he’s aware of what’s at stake. He sees his role in the legislature as not only crafting legislation, but educating his fellow representatives on the importance of agriculture.
“On my dad’s side were sugarcane farmers in Saint James Parish and they grew Perique tobacco,” Schexnayder said. “Agriculture brings in billions of dollars to the state of Louisiana every year. A lot of these legislators that live in New Orleans, live in Baton Rouge don’t know that. We’re going to get data from each district—Representative district, Senate districts—showing each one what agriculture does in each one of their districts.”
In the meantime, Dr. Bill Richardson, LSU Vice President for Agriculture, is facing a scenario in which one-third of his department’s budget is cut. That would be a disaster for many long-standing programs that benefit Louisiana’s economy.
“We’ve been asked to prepare a scenario for like a 32 percent budget cut,” Richardson said. “That’s in this year, which means I’ve got 90 days to cut you know $23 to $24 million, which is virtually impossible to make payroll and keep everything open.”
Richardson said he doesn’t know how the Louisiana Legislature will act, but he does know how people who support agriculture should act.
“They need to pick up the phone and call their legislator and say ‘hey these things are important to us,’” Richardson said. “‘They’re important for the research leading up to keep us in business, they’re important for what we get through 4-H inour parish offices. These things are important and we’d like to have our tax dollars be used to support them properly.’”