It has been a roller coaster ride for state funded agricultural programs in Mississippi this year, with Governor Haley Barbour’s proposed budget reductions threatening sharp cutbacks in land grant programs at Mississippi State University and Alcorn State University.

But following negotiations last week by a small group of lawmakers, the legislature Monday approved a $5.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that keeps funding at roughly the same levels as last year, and though the measure had not been signed by the governor at mid-week, he had not reported any objections.

Agriculture units at the two universities, which had managed a significant budget cut last year through personnel attrition, early retirements, and other belt-tightening, were advised as the 2011 legislative session was drawing to a close that they were being targeted by the executive branch for another $5.4 million in cuts.

“It was a bombshell,” said Randy Knight, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.

Almost 50 agriculture-related organizations and agribusiness groups, including the Farm Bureau, the Delta Council, the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, the Mississippi Peanut Promotion Board, the Mississippi Rice Council, the Mississippi Soybean Association, the Mississippi Corn Promotion Board, the Mississippi Forestry Association, the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, the Mississippi Association of Conservation Districts, and others signed on to a letter to House and Senate leaders registering “strong opposition” to the governor’s proposal.

“This will have a profound and negative impact on all who rely on agriculture in Mississippi,” the letter said. “Agriculture cannot be sustained at its current level without the technology development and support services provided by these two land grant universities.

“We do not believe that the estimated $5 million in additional cuts are appropriate or necessary in order to maintain the state’s fiscal responsibility … and we respectfully request that you reject the position of the executive branch for these reductions.”

When faced with budget cuts totaling nearly 15 percent over two years, it’s not possible to make up such a large funding loss by not filling lapsed positions and other belt-tightening measures, says Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council.

“When you get above 9 percent, you’re faced with taking out current employees, either through early retirements or other means, and closing down or eliminating programs.

Adverse effect on programs

The cuts proposed by the governor would have adversely affected a number of programs, Morgan says:

• “It would eliminate on-campus and off-campus Extension faculty and Extension positions in critical areas such as agriculture and forestry.

• “It would result in accreditation issues for the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University, due for review in 2014.

• “It would eliminate 40 percent of the rural youth 4-H programs in the state and decimate the successful Extension Service 4-H programs, which bolster the values, discipline, health profiles, and literacy of young people.

• “It would require the Extension Service to consider closing more county offices and transitioning to a regional concept.

• “It would reduce more than 100,000 avian influenza monitoring tests being conducted by the College of Veterinary Medicine in assisting the Mississippi Poultry Industry.”

As the legislature started the budget process, they were in a somewhat better position than last year because of the improving economy, and the proposed budget cuts were in the range of about 2.5 percent, which the ag units felt they could live with.

Then the governor returned to the capitol after travels related to his potential bid for the Republican presidential nomination and said more cuts would be necessary for the ag units in order to enhance the state’s “rainy day” fund.

“The problem with such cuts,” Morgan says, “is that, unlike the universities, which have the option of raising tuition to help offset budget shortfalls, the ag units have to make cuts in personnel, programs, etc. They already had so many lapsed positions that haven’t been filled, that another $5 million-plus in cuts would have been devastating to research and Extension.”

Leaders concurred in maintaining funding

In a final hour attempt to reverse the additional $5 million cut, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Doug Davis and House Chairman Johnny Stringer concurred in maintaining the ag units of Mississippi State University at the equivalent level of other higher education budgets.

“We’re really grateful to them, Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant, and Speaker of the House Billy McCoy for standing with us on this,” Morgan said. “Their support, and that of the 48 organizations that signed the letter to the governor indicates just how strongly people feel about the contributions of the ag units to our state.”

Agriculture and forestry create $9 billion in income at the farm gate in Mississippi, and landowners, farm operators, and the agri-industrial complex contribute $730 million to state and local governments through increased tax revenues.

Agriculture and forestry employ 17 percent of the state’s work force in the production, processing, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, marketing, and transportation of raw materials or finished goods, and generated 15 percent of the state’s taxable income, the letter to the legislative leaders pointed out.

“Due to technology advancements, largely bolstered by the two land grant systems, most of the employment generated by agriculture is high paying, off farm jobs in allied businesses that simply would not be in Mississippi were it not for the agricultural and forestry complex.”