LAST Tuesday, President Barack Obama released his proposed fiscal 2015 budget detailing his recommendations for funding the government in the coming fiscal year.
The budget would provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture with $23.7 billion in discretionary funding, down approximately $938 million from 2014 enacted levels. The proposal would increase funding for research, pollinator-related programs and broadband grants.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pointed out that, during his tenure, the agency's workforce has been reduced from 103,000 staff years to 98,000 staff years. It forces USDA to focus on reform and results, on creating opportunity and on investing in innovation, Vilsack said in a call with reporters following the budget release.
"In fact, this budget will be somewhere between $400 million and $500 million less, on the discretionary side, than when I became secretary," he said.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats have indicated that they will not pass a budget resolution this year, saying it is unnecessary because fiscal 2015 funding guidelines were included in December's budget agreement between Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). House Republicans will likely prepare a budget document, although whether the blueprint will go to a floor vote remains to be seen.
Since implementation of the Blueprint for Stronger Service in 2012, USDA has saved approximately $1.2 billion due to administrative efficiencies. The 2015 budget also includes reforms to key programs and builds on the success of that blueprint.
One touted by USDA is a new poultry slaughter rule that has been held up in the rule-making process for more than a year. Vilsack said he believes the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) can save money through modernizing inspection procedures, as proposed in the rule, without compromising food safety.
"I'm confident what we're proposing will reduce illnesses, as seen over the 10-year experiment with this inspection system," Vilsack said. "Recent data show an 11% decrease in the number of illnesses due to FSIS-inspected products. This is 52,000 fewer illnesses."
Also included in the budget recommendations is a more than $14 billion reduction in spending on crop insurance over 10 years. The savings would be achieved by reducing the reimbursement rate for administrative and operating expenses and capping crop insurance companies' rate of return at 12% instead of 14%.
Congress just denied making the crop insurance changes — which have been proposed in past years — within the latest farm bill discussion. Vilsack said the budget reflects the Administration's statement of priorities and the need to remain consistent in calling for a more equitable partnership among insurers, farmers and taxpayers.
The Administration also proposed to consolidate a number of Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices — possibly up to 250 — to reduce administrative costs.
Vilsack explained that 31 offices in the FSA portfolio have no full-time employees; others have one to two employees but are within 20 miles of a facility that's more significantly staffed and could provide more effective service.
The 2015 budget would implement savings from modernization efforts that would be reinvested via upgrading the farm program delivery system through a model service center concept.
Also included in the proposal are new fees charged by FSIS, the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration and the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. As in previous years, the budget has proposed fees on importers and food facilities to fund implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water & Drinking Water State Revolving Funds would be reduced $581 million from last year to $1.8 billion.
The budget supports research in key areas important to agriculture such as climate resilience and advanced genetics and includes $325 million for the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative competitive research program.
In addition, the budget includes $75 million to support three multidisciplinary institutes — one dedicated to advanced bio-based manufacturing, another focusing on antimicrobial resistance research and the third on crop science and pollinator health.
These institutes, recommended by the President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology, will leverage the best research within the public and private sectors to create opportunities for new business ventures funded by the private sector.
In the budget for agricultural and forestry research, the Opportunity, Growth & Security Initiative provides an additional $295 million above the base level of funding to support high-priority in-house research; to enhance funding for competitive research, including an additional $20 million to encourage competitively awarded grants through land-grant formula programs, and to build a new biosafety research laboratory in Athens, Ga.
"This modern facility is USDA's highest research construction priority and would result in the consolidation of two outdated facilities," the White House said.
The proposal also includes $300 million to leverage existing resources to initiate construction in 2015 of the National Bio & Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan., that would replace the Plum Island Animal Research Center in New York.