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|Barham paints dim picture at chamber luncheon|
Like many agencies throughout the state, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries expects a rough couple of years ahead of it.
That's the sentiment of secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries Robert Barham, who spoke Friday at a luncheon sponsored by the West Ouachita/West Monroe Chamber of Commerce.
"We've got some challenging times ahead of us, said Barham, a former state senator from Oak Ridge.
"Sometimes we feel a little bit better because others are doing worse, but the whole country, and the world for that matter, faces challenges," Barham said.
"Thank goodness we saved the chicken operation here in north Louisiana," Barham continued. "After losing IP in Bastrop, if we lost another industry and 1,300 jobs, this part of the world, including West Monroe, would have felt the impact."
Barham was referring to the Jindal administration's decision to provide some $50 million in state funding for Foster Farms to buy Pilgrim Pride's chicken processing plant in Farmerville. The move came on the heels of Pilgrim Pride's decision to close the Farmerville plant, which employs 1,300 and directly effects some 300 chicken growers.
Barham said even the smartest people throughout Louisiana could not have projected where the economy would be a year ago when the price of a barrel of oil was roughly $150.
Today the price for a barrel of oil is around $50.
"Our budget is not driven exclusively by oil and gas revenue, but it's a huge part," Barham said.
The current fiscal year's budget was based on about $74 for a barrel of oil.
"And, for every dollar down from that, it's about $14 million to $15 million less (in revenue)," Barham said. "You can see we're taking a severe beating. It's getting better, but we're still bleeding."
The Revenue Estimating Conference is expected to peg the cost for a barrel of oil around $54 for the next fiscal year, Barham said.
"There's a lot of talk about where it will go and it certainly will go up at some point," Barham said of oil and gas prices.
He said Louisiana needs oil prices to remain stable and range somewhere in the $80 range.
Though the state's financial situation will result in a tough year ahead, Barham expects Louisiana's fiscal woes will roll over into 2010-2011 fiscal year.
"We've all seen the numbers for this year, but next year will be even tougher," Barham said. "The lions share of our money is in healthcare and education, and the healthcare area is where we'll be hammered for the next two years."
That's because coupled with a decrease in state revenue, Louisiana can expect even less money from the federal government. The rate of money from the federal government is based on the average income of Louisiana residents, he said.
"When we had the storm recovery, money was pouring into Louisiana and jobs were being provided by that," Barham explained. "Our average income in Louisiana started climbing."
However, over the next two years the state will lose more than 10 percent of federal money due to the decrease in the average income of Louisiana residents.
"We're going to have to make up for that unless we start dropping programs in healthcare, and those are really costly programs," he said. "So we have some real challenges and the primary cause is the change in federal compensation rates of money coming down, and that's huge money."
The Wildlife and Fisheries Department is a self-generating agency of state government and does not use tax revenue for operations, Barham said. It depends on license sales, fees and recreational charges associated with hunting, fishing and outdoor activities.
That's good because the department is "out of the loop to some extent and protected and self-contained."
"The bad news is we recognized years ago that we have constitutionally protected so many things that the only place we could go (to make cuts) is in education and healthcare, and so all of us chose to open up every other constitutionally protected area of money and let us come in during deficit times and draw money out at 5 percent," Barham said. "Well, 5 percent of my money is huge and we're going to lose 5 percent this year and 5 percent next year. The proposal is they can take up to 10 percent out of my department. I don't have to tell you that will be a horrific challenge for us down the road."
"We will make it work, but it will be tough for us," he added.
Another issue that concerns Barham is the declining number of young people who hunt, fish or participate in activities outdoors.
When he was a child, Barham said, if he wasn't in school, he was hunting or fishing. The same can be said for many of the older generation. Yet, the younger generations spend more time with electronic devices, watching television or playing video games, he said.
"They are spending 42 hours a week in front of some kind of electronic monitor," Barham continued. "That's a full-time job, and they're not hunting and fishing."
Since the department relies heavily on hunting and fishing licenses and fees each year, this does not bode well for the future, Barham said.
He said the department is working to help single moms become more familiar with outdoor activities so they can encourage their children to be more active outside. The department also is conducting outreach programs in schools to promote outdoor activities to children.