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Cutbacks may force A&M System layoffs

By BRETT NAUMAN

Eagle Staff Writer

At least four state agencies run by the Texas A&M University System will face major staff layoffs in upcoming years if funding cuts recently ordered by Gov. Rick Perry are not rescinded, agency officials said Monday.

Perry has directed all state-financed agencies, including Texas A&M University, to reduce state spending by 5 percent when planning budgets for the 2006 and 2007 fiscal years.

Heads of several system agencies told state lawmakers and other officials Monday that cuts imposed last year by the Legislature have made it impossible to offset Perry’s most recent cuts without eliminating jobs.

System officials discussed the proposed state cuts in College Station with a representative from Perry’s office, one from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s office and two Legislative Budget Board members. The group is conducting public hearings at state-run systems across the state.

“This 5 percent reduction will have a real impact,” said Lanny Smith, director of the Texas Engineering Extension Service. “It will not trim fat. It will cut muscle.”

It was unclear Monday exactly how many layoffs the system may face, officials said.

Texas A&M University officials will present budget requests to the panel Wednesday during a similar hearing. The proposed reduced state spending will cost A&M $10 million each year, A&M officials said.

But the cuts are not final and are meant to show the Legislature how each agency prioritizes its programs, said Wayne Roberts, Perry’s senior adviser for higher education.

Faced with uncertainty surrounding projected state revenues, Perry and the Legislative Budget Board sent letters to all state-funded institutions in June that warned of the impending cuts.

Whether revenues will be up or down remains unknown. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has not yet released state income projections.

“We’re very optimistic it won’t be as bad as last go- around,” Roberts said, referring to the last legislative session when each agency on average was cut by 10 percent. “But it’s going to be tight. There’s going to be new money, but new demands far exceed the new money.”

The cuts could translate into immediate layoffs at the Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas Agriculture Experiment Station, Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory and Texas Forest Service. No employees have been laid off yet though, officials said.

The 5 percent reduction would cost the Texas Forest Service about $4.5 million over two years and would force the agency to eliminate 38 positions, said agency director James Hull.

“We’ve nickeled and dimed every way we could to absorb this cut,” Hull told lawmakers during Monday’s hearing. “We’re at your mercy, if you will.”

The Texas Cooperative Extension would lose $6 million and would have to eliminate 86 agency positions, including 50 county extension agents, system officials said.

The Texas Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory would have to let go of seven employees amid a $600,000 two-year shortfall. The Texas Agriculture Experiment Station would have to cut 55 positions, officials said.

Fifteen of the experiment station’s employees would be faculty members and would hurt A&M and Texas’ mission of being a leader in agricultural research, said Edward Hiler, Ed Hiler, vice chancellor and dean of A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, as well as director of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

“The people who generate the external funds are the faculty, and if you lose faculty, you lose the ability to get money to support their research,” Hiler said.

The agencies were among those hit hardest with budget cuts as the Legislature faced a $10 billion shortfall during its 2003 session, said Stanton Calvert, the A&M System’s vice chancellor for governmental relations.

“The kinds of things they can do to absorb the cuts, they’ve used those up,” Calvert said. “What’s left now are faculty, programs and students.”

But the good news for the agencies and all universities in the system comes from reports that nine of 10 economic statistics compiled by Strayhorn’s office predict revenues are on the rise, Calvert said.

While state officials say the cuts are a precaution, the A&M System is operating under the assumption that it will take some persuasiveness on its part to get the Legislature to return the money.

“Unless we convince them of the urgency to restore the funding, it’s gone,” Calvert said. “It already happened. You have to work hard and prove your case to get the funding back.”

• Brett Nauman’s e-mail address is bnauman@theeagle.com.

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