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Lawmaker says Iowa’s current Extension system can be saved

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

simmet@agrinews.com

ELKADER, Iowa — Rep. Roger Thomas is angry about Iowa State University’s proposal to restructure its Extension Service, and he thinks rural areas such as the one he represents in Fayette, Clayton and Delaware counties will suffer as a result.

The Elkader Democrat said he’s disappointed that commodity and farm groups have been silent.

"I’m hearing nothing from all the folks who should be concerned about the viability of agriculture," Thomas said. "I’m also not hearing from the Culver administration."

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Thomas is upset there was no mention of the restructuring process during the legislative session. The plan eliminates all county Extension education directors in favor of 20 regional directors.

"I’m sure if enough of us rural legislators banded together we could have come up with money to keep the offices functioning the way they are," Thomas said.

During a meeting in Decorah about the restructuring plan and budget cuts, ISU administration kept referring to other states — such as Michigan — that are making even more drastic cuts.

"Why do we have to be like other states," Thomas said. "Michigan has a bigger debt, and besides, we’re the leader in agriculture."

Thomas sees the restructuring plan as a way for ISU to deal with a budget crisis.

"I feel ISU has lost its land grant mission," Thomas said. "This goes against the fabric of what Iowa is all about."

Thomas said that the Board of Regents hires a lobbyist to lobby the Legislature for 100 days each session.

"Not once did a lobbyist say to any of us that ISU was shifting the cost of running Extension away from state to county funding," Thomas said. "They say they’re charging a two percent fee for each office to access Extension services, but it’s two percent of the maximum property tax levy for all Iowa Extension Districts. Many counties do not levy the maximum amount."

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Thomas is surprised that the Board of Regents didn’t second guess the plan. The plan was presented, and the board approved it April 30.

No county Extension councils knew about the plan, and Thomas wants to know why these people who are elected and volunteer their time were not contacted ahead of time.

"Jack Payne (ISU vice president of Extension and outreach) had to beg President Geoffroy to let him notify all 100 Extension directors that their jobs were being eliminated the morning the plan was announced to the Regents," Thomas said. "To me that shows the lack of understanding about what Extension has done for Iowa and rural Iowa."

As chair of the House Economic Development Committee, Thomas said he had control of some of the last amendments considered this session by the Legislature, and he could have channeled money toward Extension if he had known about the plan.

"If we had known that this was going to happen in our caucus, we would not have let ISU do this," he said. "I think every rural legislator would have stood up if we had known."

It’s not too late to stop the restructuring plan, Thomas said. Governor Chet Culver could step in and say the county directors will remain in place. The Legislative Council could put money up so the county directors would remain. As a last resort, someone could get an injunction to stop the plan from proceeding.

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