Amid cuts, CDFA works to maintain 'strong safety net'
By Ching Lee
Under the budget approved by the state Legislature, the California Department of Food and Agriculture says it will face no further cuts to its 2012-13 budget beyond the current $14.5 million.
Those reductions are part of a total of $8 billion in cuts to the 2012-13 state budget, which the governor signed on June 27, to bridge a $15.7 billion deficit. The new fiscal year started July 1.
The initial budget proposal in January called for $12 million in cuts for the department, but its funding was further reduced by $2.5 million in the May "budget revise," which allows the governor to reassess the state budget and propose further adjustments. The reductions target mainly programs that deal with invasive pests, animal health and food safety.
"I'm pleased that it didn't go any larger than that," CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said. "Although the governor personally understands the importance of our programs and the need for us to protect the state from invasive species and animal diseases—and while we have a very strong safety net—we are very focused on keeping a system in place that can do that."
As one of the department's larger programs, border protection stations absorbed the largest share of cuts—nearly $5.4 million. Savings will be achieved through reduced operations at several stations, including part-time closures at some and rotating hours at others, Ross said.
To generate more revenue for the border stations and cross-utilize staff, a portion of state General Fund cuts will be offset by enforcing against recycling fraud at stations. This fraud occurs when recycling material is brought into California for illegal redemption, according to the department.
"We are working very hard not to completely close stations," Ross said. "They're an important part of the system that matters to (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and our trading partners."
Some cuts will be offset through fees. For example, the Interior Pest Exclusion Program, which enforces plant pest quarantines and supports the Plant Pest Diagnostics Laboratory, will replace $1.15 million in cuts with phytosanitary fees for export and master certificates to move nursery stock. The Milk and Dairy Food Safety branch, which received nearly $1.03 million in cuts, will raise its existing fees for service.
CDFA will also reduce $2.4 million in local assistance. The light brown apple moth program, which saw $953,000 in cuts, will be limited to federally funded activities such as a sterile release program. This means growers and nurseries may continue to be subject to quarantine restrictions. Exclusion activities for high-risk pests, such as trappings and inspections, will face $750,000 in cuts.
"We're doing this to the extent possible on a risk basis, where our staff has compiled data on actual interceptions and rank them by low, moderate and high risk," Ross said. "Risk is based on the likelihood that a negative impact would occur."
CDFA will abandon its stand-alone biological control activities that supported weed and olive fruit fly biocontrol—$701,000 in funding—but will continue the biological control activities that are incorporated into specific programs such as the Asian citrus psyllid program. It will also reduce $366,000 from its Plant Pest Diagnostics and Seed Laboratories and make that up through efficiencies.
The Mediterranean Fruit Fly Exclusion Program, which releases sterile Medflies into the environment to prevent colonies from being established, costs about $15 million in state and federal dollars annually and will face a small cut this year. Ross said the department will eliminate releases in areas that have "the most minimal impact to the entire program."
Reorganization and reduced staffing will help the Animal Health and Food Safety Services division shoulder the reductions to its data management system. The Division of Measurement Standards and CDFA administrative costs both received cuts of $125,000.
Rayne Pegg, manager of the Federal Policy Division for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said CDFA was thoughtful in where it took its cuts and focused on "being able to keep core functions that are important to California's landscape and its bounty."
"Any more cuts would have made the department ineffective at protecting California's environment and agricultural land from pests and diseases," she said. "We are not only protecting our food and fiber but our natural forests and habitat that are so important to California. We now have to work to define a department for tomorrow's challenges with limited budget resources, increased trade and a growing population."
More than one-third of the total CDFA operating budget comes from the federal government. State funding, agricultural programs and special fees make up the rest. The department has seen its annual state General Fund support slashed by $33.5 million in the last two fiscal years, Ross noted.
With the current state budget hinging on voters' approval of the governor's proposed tax initiative in November, Ross said, "we are very mindful that if that doesn't pass, there will be additional cuts." The governor said the initiative would raise $8.5 billion in the new fiscal year by temporarily raising the personal income tax on those earning more than $250,000 a year and by increasing the state sales tax by a quarter cent to 7.5 percent for four years.
"And even if (the initiative) does pass, it does not mean that we will be fluffing up our programs or adding staff. It will merely mean holding the line of where we are," Ross added.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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