News

PSU Extension falls victim to Pa. budget crisis

Written by Jim Hook/Chambersburg Public Opinion | Mar 9, 2016 4:08 AM
penn_state_agriculture_extension.jpg

Kari Peter, agricultural research scientist, gives reporters a tour of a greenhouse following a press conference Tuesday, March 8, 2016 at Penn State Fruit and Research Extension Center, Biglerville. A news conference was held to discuss Gov. Tom Wolf's line-item veto of more than $50 million from the Land Scrip Fund that threatens the future of two key agricultural programs administered by Penn State University.(Photo: Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

(Biglerville) -- A hostage in Pennsylvania's budget crisis is making its case to the public.

Richard Roush, dean of Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, said on Tuesday that layoff notices would go out May 1 to the 1,100 people working for the Penn State Extension unless lawmakers restore more than $50 million in cuts.

Roush is hoping the budget hostage will be released unharmed.

"We can't just shutter the extension for a while and restart it," Roush said. "Once we start down this path of giving people layoff notices, the damage to the college and extension will be long lasting."
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed all spending for the cooperative extension and PSU agricultural research as part of his effort to keep negotiations open on the fiscal 2016 budget. The Republican-controlled legislature needs a two-thirds majority to override Wolf's line-item veto, and that means getting votes from Democrats.

"They all are supporters of it, but nobody wants to blink to get it done," said Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and a Westmoreland County dairyman.

"It seems pretty clear legislators have given up and don't want to focus on this issue," Adams County Commissioner Marty Qually said.

Farmers and researchers spoke Tuesday at a Pennsylvania Farm Bureau press conference held at the Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, Adams County, the state's No. 1 fruit producing county.

Should the local PSU fruit research center close, 25 full-time jobs would be lost as well as 30 part-time or seasonal jobs.

Kari Peter, a fruit plant pathologist at the center, said she hasn't started job hunting yet. She left a federal agency three years ago for what she thought would be more stable employment at PSU. Now she faces a more severe outcome.

"I've been down this road before," she said. "I'm optimistic. I look at the glass as half full. I'm focused on the upcoming season and battling fruit tree disease."

She is researching how to control deadly fire blight on apple and pear trees. Orchardist Bruce Hollabaugh calls it "one of the scariest pests we have to deal with." The bacterial disease can take a crop as well as an entire orchard. Michigan fruit growers suffered $50 million damage several years ago from the disease which hit Pennsylvania growers hard last year.

Peter tracks the progression of the disease and alerts farmers when conditions are right for an outbreak. Many farmers follow her on Twitter.  Plain farmers call to a hotline.

"Growers lean on that information to protect their investment," Peter said.

The list of PSU agriculture research goes on - plum pox, brown marmorated stink bug and integrated pest management. Contagious avian flu is at Pennsylvania's horizon.

Industry educators "don't have the same unbiased view that Penn State University has," said Chris Baugher of Adams County Nursery.

Educators and researchers work in special fields and will move on if their jobs end, according to Rousch.

Research projects will be abandoned in midstream, and their findings lost.  The long-term viability of Pennsylvania's fruit and vegetable industry would be at risk, according to Hollabaugh.

"What keeps me awake at night is thinking that the work I started in 2009 wouldn't bear fruit," said James Schupp, center of the fruit research lab.

"There will be no winners in this scenario," Roush said. The $50.5 million land grant funding from the state's general fund leverages $22 million in federal funds, $56 million in grants, $13 million from individual counties and $91 million from other sources.

Without action, Pennsylvania would be the first state to lose its land grant college, according to Roush.

The 67 county offices of the 150-year-old cooperative extension would close. The extension office in Franklin County helps farmers, gardeners and homemakers and runs the county's West Nile virus surveillance program.

The state's 4-H and Master Gardener programs would cease. Master Gardener has nearly 9,600 volunteers, and the 4-H has 92,300 members.

The extension and research programs have operated without state money since July 1. The university has floated the programs with more than $6 million a month in expectations of being reimbursed, according to Roush. The cash flow has dried up, and the college is ringing the alarm bell, he said.

The Farm Bureau and the college will take their case today to the Capitol in Harrisburg. They will hold another press conference and attend the Department of Agriculture budget hearing set for 1:30 p.m. before the Appropriations Committee.

Local legislators have been quick to stand up for the extension programs.

"Penn State Cooperative Extension essentially serves a 911 call center for Pennsylvania farmers," Rep. Will Tallman, R-New Oxford, said in a prepared statement. "If they have an issue with crops or animals and cannot diagnose the problem themselves, they can simply reach out to the extension service and someone will either walk them through the problem or be on site as soon as possible."

Democratic legislators have not supported legislation to restore funding. Wolf has not entered into "good faith negotiations" since passing a budget marked with line-item vetoes on Dec. 29, according to Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Chambersburg.

"It appears that removing him entirely from the equation and working solely with our colleagues from across the aisle to pass these supplemental appropriations bills may be the only way out," Kauffman said. "I am hopeful that many of my Democrat colleagues are also coming to the realization that we must do for the governor what he is unwilling or incapable of doing for himself."

Legislation (House Bill 1831 and Senate Bill 1120) have been introduced to help resolve the funding crisis.

The Farm Bureau is encouraging residents to contact their legislators and the governor at www.pfb.com/act now. Social media hashtag is #SavePSUag.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and The Chamberburg Public Opinion Online.

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