The Texas Cooperative Extension Service, like other state agencies, has been asked by the governor to submit a proposal that trims 5 percent from the 2004-2005 biennial budget as a starting point for the legislature when it convenes in January 2005.
“We've done what they asked,” said Ed Smith, associate director. He told the state's county agents, gathered last week at Glen Rose for their annual meeting, that another 5 percent reduction (on top of the cut they took in the last budget) takes approximately $2.2 million in state funds out of Extension coffers.
“That will affect positions,” Smith said. “In the current biennium, with similar cuts, we lost 110 positions. So, when we tell the Texas legislature that we will lose positions with another 5 percent reduction, it's a fact. We know the legislature will listen.”
Smith, who will step in as interim director this month with the retirement of Chester Fehlis, said the agency will work hard to restore that 5 percent reduction and will ask for more funds.
“Our first initiative is to get that 5 percent back,” he said. “But we're not planning on going on the defensive. We're adding other critical initiatives.”
In total, other items on Smith's want list would result in a 12 percent budget increase, a goal he believes is warranted.
“We're not looking at the deficits we saw with the last round of budget cuts,” he said. “Every economic indicator shows that our economy is better.”
The stump in the furrow, however, will be public school finance. The legislature is examining several alternatives. The cost of the public school finance plan that is ultimately approved and how it is paid for will affect the legislature's plans for other state funding. But Smith says his budget proposal assumes positive funding from both federal and state sources. County contributions, he said, have remained stable or increased in some cases.
“But counties want more positions,” he said.
So does the Extension administration. Smith said the needs are critical. The agency's delivery system, county agents and specialists, did not get a raise in base salary last year and will only receive a modest merit increase for 2005.
“We'll push for a significant salary enhancement for both years of the next biennial budget term,” he said. “We can't afford to let our salaries get even more out of line with our peers and industry.
“We will ask for increased county and regional specialist positions,” he said. “We need to replace some of our losses in critical areas and address critical needs.”
The agency also will ask for economic development specialists. “We need to broaden our economic message and be prepared to work in all areas of the state as we diversify our economy,” he said.
Smith said infrastructure improvements also need attention. “We'll ask for $.5 million to improve our Research and Extension Center facilities,” he said.
“We will be asking for an increase over the last budget,” he said. “Getting that will take a lot of work and we have to tell our story — what Extension does well.”
Smith said a key to maintaining a viable Extension program would be accountability. “We welcome accountability,” he said. “We want to tell our story. We want to identify the positive differences we make in people's lives.”