Strain whittles down ag department debt

State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain inherited a $98 million debt load from his predecessor when he took office in 2008. Over the course of two terms, he’s whittled the debt down to $34 million.

“My whole goal has been to get this agency out of debt. I’ve been at it seven years,” Strain said Monday after speaking to the Press Club of Baton Rouge at a downtown casino.

Strain touched on the debt, wild hog fertility, his agency’s budget, federal regulations and other topics during a wide-ranging speech.

The debt dates to the administration of Strain’s predecessor, the late Bob Odom. Odom backed ventures such as a cypress mill in Roseland and a syrup mill near Lacassine. Both ventures failed, leaving the state on the hook. Odom also borrowed money to buy bulldozers and other equipment.

Strain still must repay:

$25 million that was borrowed for equipment

$6 million in loans that the state bought to prevent foreclosure on the syrup mill

$1.6 million tied to the syrup mill.

A recent report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office concluded that taxpayers lost at least $71 million on the failed syrup mill that ground sugar cane for one month before falling idle. Odom used his agency’s workforce to build the mill.

Out of his $77 million agency budget, Strain must pay nearly $10 million this year in debt service. He will use slot machine proceeds, tying up the bulk of that revenue source.

At the same time, Strain has fought nearly every year for freedom in how his agency spends money. Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators have the final say on the crafting of the state spending plan.

“Our message to this administration and the next is: ‘Leave us alone. Give us our budget. And let us run our shop. Let us do it efficiently, and if we’re efficient, don’t take our money,’ ” Strain said.

Debt isn’t Strain’s only concern. He also has to contend with a feral hog population that numbers into the thousands.

Strain said the hogs were bred for the sport of hunting. They have no natural predator — other than man — and reproduce at an alarming rate.

The hogs are destructive because they are voracious eaters who destroy crops and pastures. LSU’s AgCenter is working on developing a bait that proves lethal to wild pigs without harming other animals.

The Louisiana Legislature has toyed with solutions, including year-round day or night hunting of hogs on private property.

Strain said he doesn’t think poison or hunting is the solution. He said the closest solution on the poison front is a toxin that also affects black bears, making it a no-go.

The agriculture commissioner thinks an anti-fertility drug is the better route. He favors a cookie that makes the pigs infertile.

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