Agriculture programs face cuts due to budget crisis

By Kim Baca, The Associated Press
Wednesday July 10, 2002

FRESNO — Two of the state agriculture department’s most heralded programs stand to lose the most in cuts aimed at reducing the state’s $23.6 billion deficit. 

The California Department of Food and Agriculture plans to cut $3 million from Gov. Gray Davis’s highly touted program to promote the state’s farm products and $1.57 million from a program to eradicate the glassy-winged sharpshooter. 

Though lawmakers continue to haggle over the $99 billion state budget, agriculture officials are bracing for $7 million in cuts. 

The proposed cuts are only 2.5 percent of the agriculture department’s $280 million budget, but officials say they will make a dent in some programs. 

“It will have an impact; there is no question about that,” department spokesman Steve Lyle said. “On the other hand, we don’t think any of our core programs will suffer serious damage.” 

Other department cuts include: 

n $983,000, wildlife trapping program. 

n $800,000, public affairs. 

n $580,000, plant pest diagnostic lab. 

n $180,000, weights and measurements program. 

The sharpshooter eradication program has been a major focus of the department. The pest threatens the $2.7 billion grape industry by injecting an incurable bacterial disease that kills grape vines. 

Lyle said the department expects federal funding to restore cuts to the program, which has made gains against the pest. Northern California has very few infestations, according to a statewide survey. Discovered in Southern California in 1989, the disease has spread as far as Kern County. 

“We’ll tighten the belt a little, but we still have a very healthy, very viable program,” Lyle said. 

But a San Joaquin Valley legislator said any cuts are too many for the state’s $27 billion agriculture industry. 

Assemblyman Mike Briggs of Clovis is one of a handful of Republicans being courted to help pass the budget. The spending plan fell five votes short of passage in the Assembly the day before the new fiscal year began July 1. But Briggs said he refuses to accept a budget that increases taxes and may affect the agriculture industry. 

He’s also disappointed with cuts aimed at the sharpshooter and Buy California programs. 

“We could save a little bit of money in the short run, but in the long run, the cost to the ag economy could end up being billions of dollars in exchange for those cuts,” he said. 

Lyle said for most programs, such as the plant pest diagnostic lab and weights and measurements, other funding can be found from federal grants. Some divisions, such as the wildlife trapping program that captures animals on farms, may be eliminated. Lyle said he hopes counties can pick up the slack. 

The Buy California program will fare well because of $64 million in federal grants, Lyle said. The department will kick off the program later this summer. 

But George Gomes, who manages the California Farm Bureau’s government affairs division, said the agriculture department will have to be creative in managing with less. 

“If you have a reduction in dollars, you will have a reduction in personnel,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure we don’t go backward.” 

Some related agriculture programs were spared the ax after public outcry. Last month, a budget committee recommended restoring $39 million to a program designed to preserve farmland. The Williamson Act gives farmers tax breaks if they promise to farm their land at least 10 years. 

Growers also were worried about $3.4 million in cuts to a San Joaquin Valley program designed to reduce cattle rustling, tractor thefts and other agriculture crime. Created in 1997, the Rural Crime Program began in Tulare County and spread to seven other counties. 

About $1.7 million has been restored to the program, said Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy.