Budget cuts could impact food safety

Source of Article:  http://www.wafb.com/Global/story.asp?S=10713384&nav=menu57_2

Posted: July 12, 2009  


By Caroline Moses

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The way your food is checked and regulated could soon be threatened in Louisiana because the agency in charge of food safety is facing millions of dollars in budget cuts. 

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture is already in major debt, made serious lay-offs, and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain says it will likely get worse before it gets better. "We're in charge of food safety and we're going to do everything in our power to make sure we complete our mission," said Strain.

Commissioner Strain says the people who regulate grain, meat, and pesticides are invaluable and critical to the state's safety, but like everyone else in the Ag Department, their jobs are now getting re-evaluated. "There are no more soft cuts here, only hard cuts. We have to make hard decisions, and we have to look at it program by program." Already, because of last year's budget cuts, Strain laid off 115 people.  This year his department must cut another $12 million. "Every additional person now is critical to the mission." 

Governor Jindal initially recommended the Department of Ag cut $20 million. Strain says he basically begged his former colleagues in the legislature to lower that number down to $12 million. "By working with them and explaining the importance of the programs, we have been successful in getting some dollars back in," said Strain. Even with some restored funding, Strain says it will be difficult to make more cuts, especially when the department is still paying $14 million a year toward debts. Most of the debt stems from projects bonded out under former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom.

Strain plans to try to re-finance the debt. He says that could shrink this next round of budget cuts down from $12 million to about $7 million. "I must reduce my budget by a minimum of $7 million starting from where we're at to where we need to be in a year," he said. Strain is already offering early retirement options to an additional 160 employees and he plans to stop filling jobs as people leave. He says those changes should prevent further department lay-offs for now, but next year, he warns, they'll be new threats and new fights.

Strain is still working with department heads to finalize plans for this year's cuts. He says they'll start making most of the changes by August 15th. In the meantime, he plans to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby for any additional available funding.


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