Pennsylvania budget

Gov. Tom Wolf is shown in this Nov. 23 file photo.

HARRISBURG — Collateral damage from the state’s budget standoff is no longer focused at social welfare groups.

Wielding his line-item veto, Gov. Tom Wolf has now taken aim at agriculture programs, including the Cooperative Extension Service, held dear to many Republican lawmakers who have thrown roadblocks to a budget deal.

“Gov. Wolf used his line-item veto power because the Republican Legislature has failed the people of Pennsylvania and must return to work immediately and pass a real budget,” said Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan. “We cannot continue the failed status quo that has resulted in devastation for schools and multiple credit downgrades.”

Wolf erased $70 million in ag programs from a budget passed by the Legislature just before Christmas. Most of that money was headed to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

Wolf’s veto means the state would provide no money in the current fiscal year for a fund used by Penn State for agricultural research and education for farmers and the community.

The fund supports the Cooperative Extension network of 123 educator-agents who work in county offices across the state.

Chuck Gill, a spokesman for the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, said he couldn’t comment on what impact the line-item veto could have while budget negotiations continue.

Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said that his group has heard no indication that layoffs are in the immediate offing.

The Extension Service has already been battered by budget cuts. Extension offices employ half the number of educators as in 1999, according to Penn State data. Many cuts came as state support for the university’s research and education fund was slashed almost 20 percent in 2011-12.

Extension educators assist on topics ranging from dairy farming practices to gardening to dealing with the natural gas industry. They also coordinate the state’s 4-H activities.

“In my 25 years here, there’s never been a time in which those line items weren’t funded,” Gill said. “It’s critical. We couldn’t operate (the research and Extension programs) without that money.”

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, said no one knows Wolf’s motives in making those cuts. He’s heard the suggestion that the cuts were aimed at programs so popular that it will be difficult for lawmakers to refuse to reopen negotiations.

“I can’t say that’s why he did it, but there’s a thread of logic to that,” Longietti said.

Wolf’s move irks Union County Commissioner Preston Boop.

Boop, a Republican, is also an organic farmer.

“The idea of holding organizations, individuals and economic providers hostage to get what you think is best, that’s a tactic. He’s a bully,” Boop said. “None of it makes sense. It’s unconscionable. It’s no way to run government.”

Boop said the role of the Extension agent has changed through the years, as technology has made it easier for farmers to get information. But Extension offices still play an important role. He credited them with helping to stave off the threat of avian flu last summer.

“There is still serious value there,” he said.

O’Neill, at the Farm Bureau, agreed that cutting the Extension Service will have a “huge impact.”

“There’s been a lot of frustration that it’s taken this long to get a budget, and now there is concern that this could have a negative impact on people and programs that benefit farmers.”

While no other agricultural program fared worse than the Penn State research and community education fund, other farm funds also were damaged.

Wolf slashed almost $15 million from an animal health diagnostic commission, the Pennsylvania veterinary lab and the state’s fairs.

Still, the biggest chunk of his line-item veto came in withholding $3 billion worth of payments for schools during the second six months of the year.

Sheridan said the governor released part of the money recently so that schools can remain open. But the administration is committed to leveraging more money for schools from the Legislature in the final plan.

Along with the agriculture dollars, Wolf took out $57 million from grants for college students, $900 million from prison operations and almost $2 billion from Medicaid.

Those cuts helped him whittle the Senate’s $30.3 billion spending plan down to $23.4 billion.

The governor and the Legislature have been in this budget standoff since the end of June. And the impasse strained school districts, counties and social welfare organizations, many of whom were forced to rob savings, borrow or allow bills to go unpaid.

Much of that pressure was relieved with Wolf’s partial-approval of the budget last week.

John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Readers can reach him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com or follow him on Twitter at cnhipa.