MOULTRIE -- All but two of the State Farmers Markets -- Cordele and Atlanta -- will be sold if Georgia Senate's budget is approved.

When senators received a proposed budget from the House of Representatives this week, it was $128 million in the red, and the Senate Appropriations Committee began slashing programs even deeper than before.

Among the cuts was a proposal to privatize 12 of the 14 State Farmers Markets, which would save more than $2.8 million in the Department of Agriculture's budget for fiscal year 2004. The fiscal year begins July 1.

Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin was irate at the proposed cuts.

"We've already cut our budgets 11 percent. And that's before this round of cuts," he said Thursday. "They did this behind closed doors and didn't let anybody know what they were trying to do. That's what's so frustrating about it. They didn't even discuss it with us."

Irvin claims it's a vendetta against the Department of Agriculture.

"Why they didn't give me an opportunity to decide where to take the cuts. I've got to manage the department when they get through and go home," he said.

A press release issued from Irvin's department today said that the state was closing the markets instead of privatizing them. That sent a frenzy of activity and confusion throughout the community.

Patricia Sinclair, who operates Bill's Produce at the Farmer's Market on Quitman Highway, said she didn't understand why the state was going to close the markets.

"That's lots of jobs that are going to be lost," she said. "Why don't they just close the markets that are inactive."

The Moultrie Kiwanis Club unanimously voted against the measure as a show of defiance, and the Moultrie Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Committee was drafting letters to send to representatives, said Jana Wiggins, the chamber's executive director.

Currently, there are three business at the Moultrie Farmer's Market, two of which sell retail produce as well as wholesale.

The Moultrie Farmer's Market brought in $17.1 million in revenue last year, according to statistics from the Department of Agriculture. It ranks fourth in the state.

Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, said the Senate's hands were tied.

The House budget included $128 million that was "anticipated tobacco tax," he said, and "the enabling legislation to generate that never passed. So, by law, we have to present a budget that is balanced.

The Senate does not have the ability to create revenue-generating legislation, he said.

"The only thing we could was cut."

A vote will be held today in the Senate. If approved, the budget will go to a conference committee to iron out differences with the House version, then on to the governor for his approval. But if Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoes it, a legislative extension will be needed to reconcile the budget, Bulloch said.

Bulloch emphasized that the markets will not be closed, but sold.

"It's not that we're closing them, we're looking at ways to operate them and hopefully keep providing services and space either through the private sector managing it, selling it to the private sector and entering into an agreement with local governments," he said.

But Bulloch said he was pushing to keep the Farmer's Market in the budget.

"The state is just acting as a a landlord, renting that space out. If you and I owned it, we would be trying to rent so that it was giving us a return on our investment, not losing money."

Figures show that more money was not generated at the State Farmers Markets than was spent, Bulloch said.

"He (Irvin) hasn't taken any more of a lick than any other budget has taken," Bulloch said. "Everybody's having to take some real cuts in their budgets."

Other cuts to the Agriculture Department as proposed by the Senate:

Elimination of the Atlanta seed lab, which oversees seed quality throughout the state. Another seed lab in Tifton will remain open;

The Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin will be printed biweekly instead of weekly, and

Elimination of motor-vehicle purchases for employees.

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