Louisiana may be known far and wide as an oil and gas state, but agriculture and forestry employs almost as many people and generates close to the same amount of money.
Run by a commissioner to be elected statewide later this month, the Department of Agriculture and Forestry has wide regulatory authority, including testing pesticides; inspecting livestock before it can be sold to eat; checking scales at supermarkets for accuracy; fighting fire in the timberlands that cover half the state; and making sure every gas station pump delivers exactly a gallon at precisely the price advertised.
But after seven years of deep budget cuts, if a large forest fire breaks out, like those that burned out of control in California and Washington this summer, the department will quickly run out of money to buy fuel for firefighting equipment.
Finding enough money to adequately fund the department’s activities is the key issue raised by the three challengers to the re-election of Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain in the Oct. 24 primary. Early voting began Saturday and runs for the week through Saturday, Oct. 17.
Since Strain, a 56-year-old large-animal veterinarian from Abita Springs, took office in 2008, the department’s budget has dropped 29 percent from $106.3 million to $75.1 million. The number of employees fell from 1,031 in 2008 to about 555 for the current 2016 fiscal year.
The upside to years of downsizing, most of it forced on him by the continuing budget crisis, Strain said, is that it created all sorts of efficiencies.
The number of vehicles used by inspectors and other department employees has dropped by 43 percent. They are now outfitted with technology that automatically tracks how the vehicles are used so they can be more efficiently deployed and maintained. (It’s a system that is being tested for the rest of state government.) He got rid of six airplanes and lowered debt obligations by 60 percent.
His three opponents say that’s not good enough. What the department needs is more money.
The Democratic Party candidate, Charlie Greer, of Natchitoches, promises to rebuild the coalition of legislators, farmers and foresters that served Bob Odom so well during the three decades he was commissioner before being replaced by Strain.
Republican Jamie LaBranche, of LaPlace, wants the state to focus on growing plants used for pharmaceuticals.
And Green Party candidate Adrian “Ace” Juttner, of Abita Springs, argues that Louisiana should follow Colorado’s example and legalize marijuana.
State Sen. Francis Thompson, the Delhi Democrat who has been a legislator for 40 years and has chaired legislative agriculture committees for much of that time, said revenues have been short for the past seven years throughout state government, requiring all sorts of programs from higher education to health care to road maintenance to trim their spending.
“Mike has been strapped with budget cuts from almost the moment he took office,” Thompson said. “Could we do better with more money? Absolutely. But we’ve done well.”
Not well enough, counters Greer.
He went from working as chief deputy for the Evangeline Parish sheriff to a 23-year career in the Agriculture Department under Odom and Strain.
“When this administration came in, there was plenty of money for everybody,” said Greer, who, like Odom, has white hair and has adopted the campaign advertising motif the late agriculture commissioner had used for years. Strain doesn’t personally return calls and hasn’t spent much time cultivating legislators and industry leaders, he said.
“He’s not hustling for that money. You have to go to the Legislature and tell them what happens if they don’t fund these vital programs,” Greer added.
Greer was forest enforcement chief when he retired in 2013, meaning he went after folks who started forest fires. He’s particularly concerned about the department’s firefighting capabilities after the years of budget cuts.
“With what he has in place, an event could easily become a catastrophe,” Greer said.
Louisiana’s $108 billion forestry industry provides 45,611 jobs, and timberlands cover about half the state.
Greer said that, like the West, more Louisiana residents — particularly on the north shore and the Florida Parishes and the northern suburbs of Baton Rouge — are building homes in or near the forests.
“The situations like California, where homes get burned up, we’re there, maybe not that magnitude of numbers, but we’re in extreme drought and we’re getting more and more people moving to the quiet of the countryside,” Greer said. “He needs to do a lot more than sit there and pray for rain.”
Praying may have worked, at least in the short term. The state is heading into its rainy season without any breakaway fires during the most dangerous time.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15, the state had 620 wildfires that averaged 10.27 acres before being extinguished. During the same period last year, Louisiana had 701 fires that averaged 10.96 acres.
“Over the years, we have been faced with budgetary challenges,” said Strain, who had $1 million in his campaign coffers as of Sept. 14, including $500,000 he lent to the campaign. “Each year, I go to the state Legislature and fight for additional funding to protect our largest industry, which is forestry. We are fortunate to have highly trained firefighters, but we also maintain cooperative agreements with other state and federal agencies in the event we need assistance.”
The state constitution requires the department to fight fires in Louisiana’s 18.9 million acres of forestland. But legislators and the Jindal administration appropriated $845,000 less than what Strain said was needed. So he and his budget team juggled money to ensure that the number of firefighters didn’t fall too short.
One legacy of the plush Odom days, Thompson says, was that the state acquired a good base of top-of-the-line equipment that allowed Strain to maintain and upgrade here and there without having to spend too much.
He’s been able to keep the numbers of firefighters up. He had 146 firefighters in 2010. That census dropped to 97 in September 2014 and is at 103 now.
“We do not have enough funds if we have an intense fire season,” Strain said, adding that he’ll use credit cards to buy fuel, if necessary, and deliver the unpaid bill to legislators.
Republican LaBranche, a horticulturist from LaPlace, says the way to increase revenues is to focus on growing the 46 plants that are used to make medicine by the pharmaceutical industry.
“This new medical agriculture industry will secure high-paying jobs for the college grads and others,” said LaBranche, who unsuccessfully challenged Strain in 2011 as a Democrat.
LaBranche received 28 percent of the vote — 267,942 out of 963,716 cast — without spending any money, a strategy he is repeating this time around.
Medical crops, on average, pay about $2,600 per acre, he said. Sugar cane yields about $650 per acre, while soybeans pay farmers about $450, he said.
For instance, Foxglove with purple trumpet-shaped flowers contains sugars that interact with heart muscles and have been developed into medicines to treat congestive heart failure.
LaBranche said growing Foxglove pays about $9,000 per acre and the companies would provide the seeds and expertise. The department would oversee as it does for sugar cane and soybeans.
“We need to get money into our Agriculture Department, and these pharmaceuticals are a ready way to do it,” LaBranche said.
Green Party candidate Juttner supports legalizing marijuana and argues that Louisiana farmers could cultivate marijuana to much profit.
“The department’s budget has been regularly slashed so that we don’t have enough forest firefighters, food inspectors and gas pump inspectors. Meanwhile, a potential billion-dollar crop is prohibited to Louisiana’s farmers,” Juttner wrote in a Facebook post.
A tree trimmer and beekeeper, Juttner did not respond to messages seeking an interview. But much of his campaign is being conducted online and through social media — he reports no contributions or expenditures.
Juttner points to media reports of Colorado’s Department of Revenue announcement that legal marijuana raised about $70 million in taxes last year, compared with the $42 million from taxes on alcoholic beverages. Colorado had a budget surplus of $257 million, most of which went to the public school system.
He’s been running short commercials on YouTube and Facebook outlining his positions. In one, Juttner says pesticides are killing his bees and he would encourage the use of biological solutions to control pests.
Juttner is a native of Cleveland. He attended kindergarten at the school where Schwartz froze his tongue to the flagpole in the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story.” His family later moved to St. Louis and he studied at the University of Missouri, Duke University and Tulane University while working summers as wildfire firefighter.
Few voters bothered to cast ballots in the last statewide elections four years ago.
The governor’s race, which featured the re-election of Gov. Bobby Jindal, had a 37.4 percent voter turnout. Almost 60,000 fewer voters made it down the ballot to the commissioner’s race in October 2011 for a turnout of 33.8 percent of the state’s 2.85 million registered voters at the time.
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