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State lawmakers on Tuesday recommended giving the University of Arkansas Agriculture Division $3 million more in state funds in each of the next two fiscal years.

The Joint Budget Committee and Legislative Council approved a motion by state Rep. De Ann Vaught, R-Horatio, to recommend increasing the division's spending authority and state funding by $3 million in fiscal 2020, starting next July 1, and again in fiscal 2021.

In the current fiscal year, 2019, the division is projected to receive $62.8 million in general revenue funding under the state's Revenue Stabilization Act enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson during the fiscal session earlier this year.

"They are always $3 million short for the last eight years and I was just thinking we could do it at the front end instead of the back end," Vaught said. The Legislature will approve the state's general revenue budget for fiscal 2020 in the regular session starting Jan. 14. The fiscal 2021 general revenue budget will be approved in the 2020 fiscal session.

In 2015, the Legislative Council signed off on Hutchinson's request to provide $3 million in one-time rainy-day funds to the Division of Agriculture for personnel and operating expenses.

In 2017, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge designated $2.5 million of her office's one-time lawsuit settlement funds for the division. These actions came after the Legislature declined in the 2015 and 2017 regular sessions to increase ongoing state funding for the division, despite then-House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, making a boost in funding for the division one of his top priorities for those sessions.

Tuesday's legislative budget hearing was on higher education institutions.

State Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success, asked Mark Cochran, vice president of agriculture for the UA Agriculture Division, to detail the division's budgetary plight. Jett noted that lawmakers have tried to shore up the division with one-time funds over the past several years.

Cochran said state funding for the division has been basically flat since 2008, and the division is a partnership among the state, federal and county governments.

"We've been appreciative of the one-time money, but it is very difficult for us to have the type of quality programs we have with one-time funding, particularly since at least 80 percent to 90 percent of our funding is in people and we can't have quality programs without quality people," he said.

Jett asked Cochran whether he expects to ask the Legislature for one-time state funding again during the upcoming regular session.

Cochran replied, "Definitely. We are looking for about $3 million in the short run."

Jett asked Cochran whether a $3 million increase in the division's state budget would last for eight years.

In response, Cochran said the division has maintained most of its programs despite having flat state funding since 2008, but it has about 20 percent fewer people.

Jett pressed Cochran, "How come we can't get the budget fixed on the front end, in your humble opinion?"

"We have a lot of people that express value for our programs, but we are not getting any prioritized categories" for increased state funding, Cochran said.

"As a non-formula funding entity, we were not part of the performance-based funding [system for the two and four-year colleges]. It's a source of frustration," he said. "We service the largest industry in the state, and particularly in the row crop areas, it's been a tough year."

Cochran said he's been able to continue most of the division's programs with flat state funding by increasing the division's "alternative funding" and through increased efficiency.

"But this last year, we had to cut out about $4 million out of the program's recurring costs," he said.

He added, "we had to make some tough decisions as to what it is we can continue to chew off."

Among other things, the division cut a cattle herd in southeast Arkansas, some extension programs, the number of graduate assistantships in the research program and support for programs such as Garvan Woodland Gardens, Cochran said.

Without an increase in revenue to meet recurring costs, the division could face a 3 percent to 5 percent budget cut, Cochran said. He said a $3 million increase in state funding would help cover inflation and allow the division to enhance its programs in areas such as herbicide resistance, alternatives to antibiotics for the poultry and feed industries, a health nutrition program, water conservation and youth programs.

Metro on 10/31/2018

Print Headline: $3M boost urged for ag work; UA division ends each year needing funds, lawmaker says

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