Budget cuts could hamper Texas response to bioterrorism

Proposed budget cuts for the next biennium could hamper the state's ability to respond to bioterrorism threats against a highly vulnerable livestock industry, a veterinarian told Senate Finance Committee recently.

“I am one-person deep in many critical positions,” said Dr. Lelve Gayle, executive director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, the state's primary agency for identifying animal diseases.

The laboratory may have to cut 17 positions under the 12.5 percent budget reduction being considered by the legislature for the next biennium.

“That really is going to affect our ability to step up to the plate with the bioterrorism threat that we have before us today,” he said.

The reductions would come at a time when the lab is upgrading its facilities under a $2 million federal grant, Gayle explained. It is one of in the country that is increasing its capacity to quickly analyze thousands of samples in a week, a capability that's vital in diagnosing such highly contagious diseases as foot and mouth.

Foot-and-mouth disease swept across Great Britain, Gayle noted, because its diagnostic labs could not conduct the analyses quickly enough to tell where the disease was spreading.

“If we're going to beat it, we've got to be able to cut it off at the pass.” He said foot and mouth could be almost impossible to eradicate if it ever got into the state's wild hog populations.

The disease, which could easily be introduced by bioterrorists, could sweep through the state's 22 million cloven-hoofed animals and devastate the livestock industry.

Heads from the other major agricultural agencies based at Texas A&M University also testified before the committee briefly about impacts of proposed reductions on their budgets.

The 7 percent recision required by the state for the current fiscal year has led to the closing of research stations in Munday, Yoakum and Angleton and the elimination of positions of 51 staff and faculty at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, deputy director Dr. Charles Scifrestold the committee.

The agency reduced administrative costs by 10 percent a year in each of the last two years, he said, but more cuts will be needed to meet anticipated budget shortfalls of $13.8 million over the next two years.

Any further reductions, Scifres said, would have to be made primarily by cutting people and programs, because the recision this year removed any budget flexibility the agency had.

Dr. Chester Fehlis, director of Texas Cooperative Extension, said that in a worst-case scenario some 190 positions would be eliminated going into the next biennium, which begins in September.

Some 119 of these would be county agent positions; the agency has 641 agent positions that provide Extension programs in all 254 counties in Texas.

If the agency's two-year budget is cut by $11.4 million, Fehlis said, Extension annually would lose some $1.13 million in direct funding support from counties, which help pay county agent salaries. Some 110,000 children would not be served by 4-H, the statewide youth program with an enrollment that hovers around the 1 million mark.

Extension also would not be able to make approximately 2.5 million direct teaching contacts, give 45,000 volunteer training experiences.

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