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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published February 25 2010

Minnesota legislators foresee ag cuts, seek details from Pawlenty

ST. PAUL – Farm-area legislators fear that agriculture programs are being cut more than other departments as Minnesota officials look to balance 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, said 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 are 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 cut $625,000.

The biggest complaint 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,” said AURI Executive Director Teresa Spaeth.

She said one of two of the organization’s three offices would need to close. AURI has headquarters in Crookston, with offices in Marshall and Waseca.

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

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

Among agriculture cuts the Pawlenty administration recommends are

$1.7 million from state payments 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 other ag programs.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.