COVINGTON -- Many students in Georgia look forward to their fifth-grade year, when they can begin to participate in 4-H.
But the state's budget shortfall could result in the end of the program.
The University System of Georgia plans to present to state officials a plan to cut or eliminate 4-H in an effort to save almost $59 million of the $300 million it plans to cut this year.
State Sen. John Douglas said the University of Georgia President Michael Adams and USG Chancellor Erroll Davis proposed the cuts to 4-H in what seems like "an effort to achieve some sort of leverage with members of the House and Senate," he said.
"They pick a popular program and threaten to do away with it as a negotiation tactic for their budget, as a scare tactic," Douglas said. "It's made a lot of people mad at the Capitol, and it's not helped them at all."
He said the legislature may have to step in to force the change to what he considers high salaries for top executives, rather than extreme cuts to programs like 4-H.
"Although UGA suggested cutting 4-H programs, it still pays its president $661,000 a year, about four times the salary of Gov. (Sonny) Perdue and 38 times my Senate salary, including membership in five different clubs, a substantial housing allowance, car lease funds, a salary supplement of $125,000 per year and a number of other benefits," Douglas wrote in an e-mail he is sending to constituents and others. "They also pay Stephen Baginski, an accounting professor, $361,000 per year in salary and benefits. Many others too numerous to mention are paid well over $250,000 a year at UGA."
The proposed cuts also suggest the closure of the State Botanical Gardens, but nothing has yet been approved, Douglas said.
"It seems that the primary goal of both the USG and UGA at the moment is to protect huge salaries while threatening the people of Georgia with cuts to very popular programs," he said.
Jule-Lynne Macie, director of Rockdale County's Cooperative Extension office, said the plan could totally eliminate 4-H across the state, as well as five 4-H camps, or half of Georgia's Extension Offices could be closed.
Rockdale's Extension service employs nine people and Newton's employs four people who run the countys' 4-H programs and other agricultural programs.
"It's one of the only youth organizations that doesn't charge dues and anyone can be part of," Macie said. "It leaves an impact on them."
Both counties serve more than 1,500 students in fifth through 12th grades.
"It's a big program in our county," said Ted Wynne, coordinator of Newton County's Cooperative Extension Office. "Less than 1 percent of students live on farms, but they also learn how to do things like public speaking."
He said cutting the 4-H program could close Extension Offices. In Newton County, this could mean an end to some community service projects, the Youth Leadership Program and water quality and soil tests. In Rockdale County, this also could take away important certification programs like those required for landscape pesticide workers, restaurant employees seeking the required ServeSafe certification and child care provider recertification.
"We also answer questions for farmers and homeowners, providing them with non-biased research," said Macie, whose offices screen about 1,000 calls and e-mails on average each week. "It also would affect other agencies we do services for ... like the (Rockdale County) Food Bank and (the Department of Family and Children Services)."
The cuts also could force the closure of Eatonton's Rock Eagle 4-H Camp and other 4-H camps around Georgia, where thousands of 4-Hers visit each summer to participate in classes and educational activities.
Macie said residents can help 4-H stay alive by contacting their local legislators.
"If you know a legislator personally, call them and tell them how you feel about this," she said. "At this point, that's the best thing to do."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.