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Farm lawmakers see cuts coming

Teresa Spaeth of Bemidji, executive director of the Minnesota Agriculture Utilization Research Institute, tells a House committee Wednesday that one or two of the organization's three offices could be closed if the governor's proposal to chop half of its budget passes. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Farm-area legislators fear that agriculture programs are being cut more than other departments as Minnesota officials look to balancing the state budget.

And they do not like being left in the dark, as they claim is happening as the Pawlenty administration looks at further reductions.

Facing a $1.2 billion budget deficit, Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommends a 6.4 percent cut to the Agriculture Department, and calls for half of the Crookston-based Agriculture Utilization Research Institute's budget to be eliminated.

When combined with previous cuts, Pawlenty's newest reductions would trim 13.2 percent of the agriculture budget, according to Quinn Cheney of the Agriculture Department.

The House Agriculture Finance Committee looked into the situation Wednesday, and went away asking for more details. Cheney could provide information on only about half of the cuts, saying the rest is to be decided.

Legislative leaders want to begin the budget-cutting process as early as next week.

Committee Chairman Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said the committee needs more information from Pawlenty's staff.

"We are looking for loose change," Juhnke said, but the administration has yet to say how it would make $625,000 in cuts.

The biggest complaint heard from committee members was eliminating half of the research institute's $6.2 million budget.

"It really puts a dagger through the heart of this organization," AURI Executive Director Teresa Spaeth said.

She said one or two of the organization's three offices would need to close with that drastic a cut. AURI is headquartered in Crookston, with offices also in Marshall and Waseca.

AURI conducts research on agriculture products and helps get them to market, which Juhnke said produces rural Minnesota jobs.

Juhnke said he cannot let AURI get cut as much as Pawlenty wants.

A broader concern Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, expressed is a proposal to move about $1 million from various funds filled with fee revenues into the state general fund, where money would be used for things other than why fees were collected.

Faust called the use of fee money for other uses unethical and immoral.

Among agriculture cuts the Pawlenty administration recommends are $1.7 million from state payments made to ethanol producers. Farmers making the corn-based fuel still would get money, but some would be delayed to future years.

Pawlenty also recommends cutting lesser amounts from many other ag programs.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.