On the heels of a nearly $100 million cut in state aid to universities, Mark Killian is quitting the Arizona Board of Regents.
Killian told Capitol Media Services that the budget struggles of the past several years were not the reason. But he said the time it takes for board members to deal with those cuts as well as lobby for more funding leaves him unable to properly do his full-time job as director of the state Department of Agriculture, a post he got six months ago from Gov. Doug Ducey.
But Killian said that Ducey, as his boss in that slot, did not pressure him to quit the regents despite their disagreements over university funding. Killian, a Republican and former House speaker, has served on the board since being appointed in 2010 by Ducey’s predecessor, Jan Brewer.
He also said his resignation, effective Thursday, does not mean his struggles with both the governor and state lawmakers over funding are over. The only difference is now his focus will be on his agency’s budget which was slashed during the recession, saying more money is needed to protect the public.
And what of funding for higher education?
Killian, who served as board chairman for part of his tenure, said he remains supportive of the university system. But Killian said he will no longer be involved in plans by some to get voters to approve a new tax to provide dedicated funding to protect the schools from future budget cuts.
His focus, Killian said, has to be on his agency.
He said the Department of Agriculture got $12 million in tax proceeds in 2008 to operate the agency. This year, the figure is less than $8 million.
It isn’t all about inspecting cattle, though that’s part of the job.
“There’s going to be about five billion pounds of produce coming across the border at Nogales,’’ Killian said. While federal agents look for things like pesticides, his agency is responsible for checking the quality, right down to the sugar content of things like grapes.
The potentially bigger threat, he said, is what enters Arizona from other states.
At one time, his agency used to stop all vehicles entering the state to inspect plants and produce, looking for bugs that could decimate crops here.
“Now, that stuff comes into the center of our state and we’re playing catch up,’’ Killian said.
That includes fire ants. In fact, Killian said his agency is the second largest consumer of Spam in Arizona.
“We cut that Spam into cubes and put it on toothpicks and put it on these new plants and trees that have been brought in from Florida and Texas,’’ Killian explained. “And if there’s any fire ants, they come out and start to eat that and we can do the eradication.’’
It’s the inspections Killian said his agency isn’t doing that worry him.
Consider “artisan ice cream’’ made from unpasteurized milk.
“We’re supposed to be out there inspecting all of that,’’ Killian said. “There’s hundreds of those, and we’ve only got two people to do that.’’
His agency is also responsible for taking samples of pet foods, including the ones sold at local supermarkets.
“We’re not even scratching the surface,’’ Killian said.
And he said the inspectors his agency still has are able to sample only 200 batches of fertilizer and seed, versus the 1,800 before the recession.
“So, farmers and consumers are buying fertilizer that I can’t guarantee matches the label that’s on the bag,’’ Killian said.