$1 million sought for citrus disease fight

State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain asked legislators Monday for $1 million to fight a citrus disease that has cropped up in Louisiana for the first time in a century.

Citrus canker is a bacterial disease that puts brown splotches on citrus fruit and leaves. It can kill trees’ ability to produce fruit.

Nearly 450 trees tested positive for citrus canker in 2013.

The lion’s share of the cases were in Jefferson and Orleans parishes. The disease also is creeping into Plaquemines Parish, the heart of Louisiana’s citrus crop.

“If we fail to address this, we could lose the entire industry,” Strain warned members of the Louisiana House Committee on Appropriations.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed $25 billion state spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year actually would increase Strain’s budget by 1.6 percent.

However, Strain said the Jindal administration inflated some expected dollars, relied on other dollars that he actually cannot spend and undercut his acquisition expenses.

Strain told legislators that he needs a total of $3.9 million added to his $75 million recommended budget.

Keeping the governor’s proposal intact would leave him too few dollars for citrus canker, acquisitions and personnel costs, he said.

“The revenues are overstated or they are funds we cannot spend,” Strain said.

After the meeting, Commissioner of Administration Kristy H. Nichols, the governor’s budget adviser, released a statement: “The Department of Agriculture’s budget actually increases by more than $1 million. There were 27 vacancies that were removed from the current budget — 16 of which had been vacant for more than a year with the remaining adjustments made to reflect a better working total in the actual number of vacancies in the agency. The current number of vacancies for the agency stands at 20. The FY15 budget for the Department of Agriculture fully funds all retirement costs and performance adjustments to employees.”

The House Appropriations Committee is poring over the governor’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Agency leaders are going before the committee to offer their take on the proposal.

New state Veterans Affairs Secretary Rodney Alexander offered an update on ground-breaking plans for a veterans cemetery in Rayville. First Assistant State Attorney General Trey Phillips touted his agency’s ability to live on a lean budget.

The budget proposal is the Jindal administration’s creation. The Legislature typically tinkers with it before sending it to the governor’s desk for final approval.

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the state agriculture and forestry department had total funding of $114.3 million. Now that funding has been whittled down to $75 million amid tough financial years for state government.

Strain said he reduced personnel and downsized the agency’s fleet of cars and airplanes. At the same time, he said, the state’s agriculture and forestry industry has grown by 40 percent.

The department relies on a mix of dollars to pay the bills, including money collected in funds.

Strain said the Jindal administration overestimated:

Fees and self-generated revenues by $171,015.

Expected revenue in the Boll Weevil Eradication Fund by $305,777.

Expected revenue in the Horticulture Commission Fund by $126,179.

Expected revenue in the Seed Commission Fund by $171,247.

Expected revenue in the Weights and Measures Fund by $84,980.

Federal funds by $241,691.

Strain said the administration also counted on funds that he cannot tap, such as a Grain and Cotton Indemnity Fund.

The committee’s chairman, state Rep. Jim Fannin, asked how that could happen. Fannin, R-Jonesboro, pointed out that the Jindal administration sits down with agency leaders during budget development.

“You met with the commissioner of administration in November. How does it get overstated in the budget?” Fannin asked. Strain’s response was: “I can’t tell you.”

State Rep. Chris Leopold, R-Port Sulphur, begged legislators to address the citrus canker problem. Leopold represents Plaquemines, Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

Citrus canker arrived in the U.S. via infected seedlings from Japan in 1912, the same year William Howard Taft was president and the Titanic made her doomed maiden voyage. It took 20 years to wipe out the disease.

In the 1980s, citrus canker reappeared in Florida. It eventually popped up in Louisiana, where farmers are struggling to contain it.

“It’s a multimillion-dollar industry, and it’s under threat,” Leopold said.