UPDATE: House leaders compromise on fix to budget language for Ag Department

03/07/2012 12:56 PM

(UPDATED) House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover and House Speaker Greg Stumbo worked out a compromise to give the Agriculture Department the flexibility to tap up to $2 million a year in restricted funds to help balance the agency’s budget.

That compromise won broad bipartisan approval Wednesday as the House passed the next two year spending plan.

Earlier, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said his department needed a provision in the budget that other constitutional offices have so his agency can tap money it brings in through fees in order to avoid dramatic cuts.

The Agriculture Department is slated to be $1.5 million short as a result of another 8.4 percent cut. Comer said he’s not asking for more money. Instead, he wants language that would allow him to use money brought in through chemical company registration fees to plug the gaps in other areas of the department’s budget.

Without that flexibility, there will “catastrophic consequences,” Comer said. It’s unclear how the department would be able to absorb the cuts without the flexibility to tap the extra fee money because the budget doesn’t allow for layoffs of merit employees.

“We remain hopeful that the legislature will look beyond politics and do the right thing for our farm families,” Comer said. “We touch every Kentuckian in some way in every way, from the scanners in the grocery store to the scales in the stockyards. We are the largest consumer protection there is.”

House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover filed an amendment to the bill that would give Comer the flexibility to use those so-called restricted funds.

Comer is the only Republican constitutional officer. But it’s not as if he was targeted by the House Democrats. The Agriculture Department has not had specific language in the budget allowing it to tap restricted funds, according to a review of past budget bills.

But the department hasn’t needed it until now, according to Ag Department officials.

And the budget sections for the other constitutional officers’ agencies include such language.

For instance, the fifth provision in section for the attorney general’s office gives it the ability to expend restricted funds “in support of the operations of the Office of Attorney General.”

The first provision in the budget section for the secretary of state says “the above restricted funds may be used for the continuation of current activities within the Office of Secretary of State.” The House version of the budget gave Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes access to $150,000 more in restricted funds each of the next two years.

The treasurer is allowed to use restricted funds left over in the unclaimed property funds.

And the state auditor brings in nearly 60 percent of its budget through payments made by the government and agencies it audits.

The Agriculture Department has pared back its ranks of employees from 319 two years ago to 280 spots now. Of those, only 249 of those positions currently are filled.

The Agriculture Department collects annual registration fees from chemical companies. But that money is restricted for use only in a few areas: the pesticide division, agriculture education, picking up old chemical containers and soil conservation groups.

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