By Gene Hall
I had a conversation with Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples a few days ago and asked him about the new realities of budget cuts in Texas.
Faced with a massive revenue shortfall, the Texas Legislature was forced to slash budgets across the board. The state constitution requires a balanced budget. The political climate did not support tax increases. The Legislature had a lot of tough choices to make—none of them without considerable political pain.
Today—September 1, 2011—is the day Legislative actions begin to take effect. The heads of Texas agencies, like Staples, must start to implement what the Legislature has decreed. For the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), that budget reality was a 40 percent cut amounting to about $50 million.
The Texas Department of Agriculture has considerable impact on the lives of Texans. They have a lot to do with agriculture, as the name suggests, but also considerable regulatory duties to protect Texans in various ways. TDA regulates agricultural practices in terms of safety and health. The agency also regulates weights and measures to ensure that Texans get what they pay for at the gas pump, at grocery stores and wherever goods are priced by weight or measure. Staples says his first obligation is making certain these essential functions are performed.
The picture is less clear when it comes to how the state’s agriculture will be supported. Staples is determined to assist the farmers and ranchers of Texas, but that just got more difficult. The market news service, a part of TDA for years, will be discontinued. Consolidation in seed labs is planned. At least one of the five cattle pens maintained by TDA to facilitate export and import of livestock will be closed.
Then there’s the really tough part. TDA will have to cut about 120 jobs from the payroll. Some will retire, but letting some dedicated employees go will be part of Staples’ difficult task. Still, the TDA chief says some at the agency will become more efficient as functions are forced out of specialty “silos.” Employees will learn a broader range of skills. The Texas Department of Rural Affairs has been reassigned to TDA by the Legislature and Staples believes it’s a good fit that will save money.
There’s no second guessing from me on any of this. It’s a task I’d personally hate to tackle. The Legislature faced up reality with budget cuts in Texas. State agencies are figuring out how to make it work.
It’s clear that the majority of Texans did not want new taxes and fees. As the changes in the law begin to take effect, Texas has until the Legislature meets again in 2013 to evaluate the consequences and advantages. How much and what kind of state government do we want and how will we pay for it?