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|Walsworth chides, lauds colleagues on budget|
Legislators need to do a better job handling taxpayer funds but they're "doing the best we can" to compensate for a projected $1.4-billion budget shortfall, according to state Sen. Mike Walsworth.
The Legislature did the right thing last year in moving the state away from using one-time money for recurring expenditures, said Walsworth, R-West Monroe. However, Walsworth said lawmakers have not done a good job in the current legislative session.
"This year, maybe it's not a miserable failure, but we do use one-time money for recurring expenses," Walsworth said. "We just don't have a choice except to go back down that road, to where we started, again doing what got us into those bad situations to begin with."
Walsworth pointed to health care and higher education as the two areas of the budget that most likely will feel the biggest pinch budget-wise in coming years. He said lawmakers want to spare massive cuts to state programs.
That may not be possible because of significant declines in state revenues, Walsworth said.
"We've been in this Katrina bubble for a long time and now it has exploded on us," Walsworth said. "We've spent a lot of money, no doubt about it."
Lawmakers must make more than $1 billion in spending cuts to the state's $9 billion general fund budget. The state's overall budget totals more than $26 billion.
Walsworth said a number of solutions have been discussed to offset proposed budget cuts heading into the 2009-10 fiscal year, including tapping the state's "Rainy Day" trust fund and economic development fund.
So far, though, Walsworth said legislative leaders have "done a yeoman's job in preventing mass hysteria."
Walsworth singled out House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin as one of the architects of the budget process.
"He's done a really great job with this budget," Walsworth said. "Without his leadership on this matter, I don't think we would be nearly as far as we have come."
As legislators struggle to balance the budget for the new fiscal year, another area lawmaker is waging a fight to make sure budget cuts don't undermine Louisiana's biggest industry.
State Sen. Francis Thompson said he wants to make sure farmers and timber producers will continue to have access to the services they need to succeed.
"The largest industry in the state is still agriculture," said Thompson, D-Delhi. "We don't need to cut off our hand if that's the one that's doing the work."
Thompson is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He is working to restore millions in cuts to the state agriculture department to save some of the 79 job cuts expected there.
Also, Thompson said he wants to make sure higher education cuts do not affect vital LSU AgCenter operations around the state.
In singling out agriculture as the state's largest industry, Thompson also noted farmers bore the brunt of Hurricane Gustav last year.
"The farmers in northeast Louisiana lost more money than the people living on the coast where it came ashore," Thompson said. "There was more than $1 billion in crop damage in northeast Louisiana last year."
In spite of the losses last year, Thompson said the agriculture department has been singled out for a massive budget cut and loss of jobs.
Among those jobs, a number of state forestry service workers and fire prevention officers will be handed walking papers.
For Thompson, such a step makes little sense.
"Why would you eliminate fire protection when we have one of the largest timber industries in the South?" Thompson said.
Another program Thompson will fight to continue funding is the state's boll weevil eradication program.
Though boll weevils have been "virtually eradicated" according to published reports, Thompson said there still exists the possibility for resurgence if Louisiana doesn't follow through on the program it implemented years ago to rid the state of boll weevils.
"This is a program we've been in for many, many years," Thompson said. "If we don't finish that program, then all the money we've invested in previous years would have been for nothing."
Thompson said he has encouraged members of the Legislature to tap the state's Rainy Day fund to shore up education and healthcare and to infuse needed cash into strapped agriculture and economic development programs.