Bill Richardson is no stranger to bruising budget battles. He’s seen plenty of them in the years he’s served first as chancellor of the LSU AgCenter and now as LSU’s vice president for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture.
But none have been more bruising and cantankerous than the one that ended with a 59-43 House vote to approve the SAVE offset on June 11. The vote averted a veto of the state budget by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a conservative Republican with presidential ambitions.
“We’ve had a very, very difficult legislative session that started back in January with a proposal to cut 82 percent of the AgCenter’s budget,” Dr. Richardson said in a briefing for attendees of the Pest Management and Crop Production Field Day at the LSU AgCenter’s Northeast Research Station near St. Joseph, La., on Wednesday (June 17).
“And we didn’t end up until about three minutes to 6 p.m. last Thursday (June 11) in dealing with that. We asked you to make some phone calls to legislators, and it made a difference. I had two or three of them call me and ask if I would call you off and ask you to stop calling them because they were going to help us if they could. I like to get those kinds of calls.”
Dr. Richardson also singled out Rep. John F. “Andy” Anders, D-Vidalia, the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry, Aquaculture and Rural Development, for special thanks. Anders, a farmer in Concordia Parish, was in the field day audience.
Anders and a number of House members were opposed to the SAVE program because it smacked of budget “gimmickry,” providing a tax credit of $350 million to offset that amount of new revenue the Legislature needed to raise to avoid significant spending cuts.
“Last Thursday around noon, there was a lot of politics going on in the Capitol, and Andy, the LSU president and I got together, and we had to ask Andy to make a vote he really didn’t want to make,” said Richardson. “The consequences were it was going to impact the LSU Ag Center and impact this area (around St. Joseph).”
Without approval of the SAVE program, Richardson said, legislative leaders were saying they would have to cut the AgCenter budget by $22 million.
“Andy told us ‘I’m going to vote with you. I don’t like it, but I can’t afford to put you at risk,’” said Richardson. “So, Andy, I want to thank you for that vote because I know it wasn’t a comfortable thing to do.”
In an interview, Richardson said $22 million in cuts would have meant “I would have had to take a look at closing some things, which would have included research stations. We would protect our core crops in the state, the large crops. But some other things we would have had to take a look at.
“This station (Northeast Research Station) is so critical to the agricultural production in this part of the state that I think it would have survived,” he noted. “We have some others that probably wouldn’t have. $22 million would have forced me to eliminate 300 to 400 positions and with that you just can’t do everything you’ve been doing.”
Those cuts would have been in addition to reductions totaling $20 million the AgCenter has experienced over the last five or six years. “The cumulative impact of this would have been beyond devastating, and, in our lifetimes, we probably wouldn’t have recovered.”
AgCenter administrators remain concerned about the future. This is an election year in Louisiana, and the state will have a new governor and possibly new members of the legislature in 2016.
“We’ll be interested in seeing if they try to look at some longer-term solutions to the funding of higher education and health care since we’re the two parts of the state budget that are kind of unprotected. But we’re in good shape; we’re not closing any of our units, we’re not eliminating any of our offices and we’re doing everything we can to keep our faculty intact. We’ve got a great faculty that do wonderful work for us.”
For more on Louisiana’s budget battles, visit http://theadvocate.com/news/legislature/12624380-123/louisiana-house-oks-save