Hed: Deficit appropriation unlikely for Ag Department

Hed: Deficit appropriation unlikely for Ag Department

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – New Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell is preparing a plan to run his department with $1.2 million less than originally was budgeted.

Spell, who was elected in November, came to the state Legislature in January asking for a $1.2 million deficit appropriation. The money is needed because funds appropriated last year to carry the department from July 1, 1995, until June 30, 1996, apparently were spent before Spell took office in areas other than their original purpose.

Rep. Ted Foster, R-Pontotoc, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he already has met with the new agriculture commissioner and told him the additional funds would not be available. House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo, echoed Foster’s thoughts.

“The money is just not there,” Ford said.

Foster said the Legislature’s decision to not fund the deficit request is no reflection on Spell.

“I think Commissioner Spell is doing a good job,” Foster said. “I hate to see him have to start this way, but he will do a good job.”

The legislative decision probably does not surprise Spell, who has served as the mayor of Richland since its incorporation in the mid 1970s. Legislative leaders said earlier in the session that because of budget constraints, the additional money probably would not be available.

The additional funds are needed, Foster said, because during Jim Buck Ross’ last months in office “more money was spent than was budgeted.” Ross served seven terms as commissioner of agriculture and commerce.

The Agriculture Department apparently overspent at the Jim Buck Ross Agricultural Museum in Jackson.

The museum, which Ross started, has become one of the state’s top tourist attractions and was his pet project.

In earlier reports, Ross said he did not know about the deficit. State Auditor Steve Patterson has said nothing illegal occurred.

Regardless of the reason for the deficit, Spell is now in the tough position of deciding where to make cuts.

The Department of Agriculture serves many functions, from marketing the state’s commodities to providing consumer protection.

For instance, the department is responsible for ensuring gasoline pump gauges are accurate to ensure people get what they pay for. The department also inspects food products for safety. These inspections include products grown in Mississippi that are shipped to other states or countries.

Spell said his primary concern will be to continue all safety-related services, such as food inspections.

“Our department impacts everyone,” Spell said. He hopes to have a plan in place by this week to handle the cuts.

“(Spell) is in a tough situation,” said Sen. Rob Smith, D-Richland, a member of the Agriculture Committee. He said the transfer of money to the ag museum was only part of the problem. He said the Legislature has failed to adequately fund the department in recent years.

Even though chances of the Legislature providing the $1.2 million request look slim at best, Spell said he has not given up hope.

He said, “I have great faith in the Legislature.”

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