"I am one-person deep in many critical positions," said Dr. Lelve Gayle, executive director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, the state's primary agency for identifying animal diseases.
The laboratory may have to cut 17 positions under the 12.5 percent budget reduction being considered by the legislature for the next biennium.
"That really is going to affect our ability to step up to the plate with the bioterrorism threat that we have before us today," he said.
The reductions would come at a time when the lab is upgrading its facilities under a $2 million federal grant, Gayle explained. It is one of five labs in the country that is increasing its capacity to quickly analyze thousands of samples in a week, a capability that's vital in diagnosing such highly contagious diseases such as foot and mouth.
Foot-and-mouth disease swept across Great Britain, Gayle noted, because its diagnostic labs could not conduct the analyses quickly enough to tell where the disease was spreading.
"If we're going to beat it, we've got to be able to cut it off at the pass," he said, adding that foot and mouth could be almost impossible to eradicate if it ever got into the state's wild hog populations.
The disease, which could easily be introduced by bioterrorists, could sweep through the state's 22 million cloven-hoofed animals and devastate the livestock industry.
Heads from the other major agricultural agencies based at Texas A&M University also testified before the committee briefly about impacts of proposed reductions on their budgets.
The 7 percent recision required by the state for the current fiscal year has led to the closing of research stations in Munday, Yoakum and Angleton and the elimination of positions of 51 staff and faculty at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, deputy director Charles Scifres told the committee.
The agency reduced administrative costs by 10 percent a year in each of the last two years, he said, but more cuts will be needed to meet anticipated budget shortfalls of $13.8 million over the next two years. Any further reductions, Scifres said, would have to be made primarily by cutting people and programs, because the recision this year removed any budget flexibility the agency had.
Chester Fehlis, director of Texas Cooperative Extension, said that in a worst-case scenario some 190 positions would be eliminated going into the next biennium, which begins in September. Some 119 of these would be county agent positions; the agency has 641 agent positions that provide Extension programs in all 254 counties in Texas.
If the agency's two-year budget is cut by $11.4 million, Fehlis said, Extension annually would lose some $1.13 million in direct funding support from counties, which help pay county agent salaries. Some 110,000 children would not be served by 4-H, the statewide youth program with an enrollment that hovers around the 1-million mark. Extension also would not be able to make approximately 2.5 million direct teaching contacts, give 45,000 volunteer training experiences, or conduct 21,700 educational meetings, Fehlis said.
"So much of our work is preventive education," he pointed out, noting that there will be a multiplying cost factor in dealing with problems that grow worse.
Ed Hiler, vice chancellor and dean for agriculture and life sciences, reminded the Senate panel that the agricultural agencies, while headquartered at Texas A&M University, do not share in the tuition or fee revenues that colleges generate from students.
He said a top priority for the Texas A&M Agriculture Program is to receive legislative approval for a direct appropriation to maintain and operate the 14 agricultural research and Extension centers and other facilities scattered around the state. Currently, Hiler said, operating funds must be used to support this infrastructure, much of it state-owned and more than 25 years old.
A $13.3 million appropriation over the next two years is sought to support the 1.7 million square feet of space maintained by the Texas A&M agriculture and engineering agencies in facilities outside Brazos County. The funding level was based on a formula developed and recommended by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which uses a similar formula to determine facilities funding support for the state's colleges and universities.