Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain is offering a retirement incentive — in lieu of job layoffs — as he tries to shrink employee payroll to cut budget expense.

The retirement incentive is part of Strain’s plan to comply with Jindal administration-directed cuts required to balance the current and next year’s state budget. The state must cut $300 million in the current year because of lagging state revenues and $1.6 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Civil Service director Shannon Templet gave the green light for Strain to offer the retirement incentive to his employees as a layoff avoidance measure. The state Civil Service Commission ratified her decision Wednesday.

So far, 34 employees have signed up to take advantage of the program, far more than the 20 the department has budget authorization to cover. Under the program, employees are paid a lump-sum benefit of a maximum of 50 percent of the agency savings in the 12-month period following the employee’s retirement date. The employees will retire before Feb. 13.

The Jindal administration reduced Agriculture’s mid-year budget cut by about $600,000 to allow Strain to offer the incentive program. It is expected to yield long-term payroll savings and minimize layoffs next budget year.

“This is our fourth layoff avoidance plan since taking office in 2008,” said Strain.

Strain said department staff has gone down from 1,006 in 2007 to under 540 today.

A further reduction in staff “is going to be difficult,” said Strain. “We are at the thin red line of our ability to perform our constitutional job.”

“We are going to do the very best with what we have,” he said.

Strain said the department had 15 budget cuts in seven years “and a 21.7 percent budget cut since mid-December going forward into next year.”

Strain’s department is facing a $2.6 million reduction between now and June 30. Next fiscal year, Strain’s target cut is between $3.8 million and $5.2 million, or 15 percent to 20 percent.

Strain said he is considering elimination of some programs. “You can’t operate a program with no funding even if it’s mandated by law,” he said.

Strain said the administration has said agencies can take a look at implementing or increasing fees for services to generate revenues. But he said fees are not allowed under federal law for many of the activities of his department such as food and meat inspection programs.

He said the office’s firefighting function is not fee based.

“The other thing is if we do look at fee for services in specific areas, don’t take it away from me,” said Strain. “We have to have assurances that the funds won’t be swept.”

The Jindal administration has scooped up self-generated funds of government agencies, diverting them from their purpose, to plug budget holes.