PEORIA — U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos on Friday again celebrated news that Peoria's ag lab is funded in President Donald Trump's new budget, before beginning to press for the next steps to put the facility on solid footing.
The Moline Democrat, whose district includes the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, also announced that permission had been given to begin the search for a permanent director at the facility. Since the last director left in September 2016, it's been overseen by a temporary, interim leader.
Bustos also said that she hoped the lab, which is the largest of its kind in the nation, could increase the number of employees who work there. At its peak, it employed about 300 people, she said, but today 167 are employed at the site, 80 of them holding PhDs.
There are 23 vacancies "on paper," Bustos said, but only three of them are funded to be filled at present.
"I hope we can get back to that peak employment," she said after describing research underway for natural products that rival deet, and work on thickening agents in the same facility that helped discover the xanthan gum that is ubiquitous in ingredients like salad dressing.
Both the hiring of a director and having funding to research next-generation product lines are critical, said U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood in a statement.
The Peoria Republican is traveling in China as part of a congressional delegation on trade issues, but said he would continue working with Bustos in a bipartisan fashion to "assure the Ag Lab and its hardworking staff have the resources they need to continue their world-class research that directly benefits the agricultural industry here in the Midwest and across the world."
Meanwhile, employees at the facility are "very happy to have one less thing to worry about" with the threat of de-funding the facility gone, said Ashley Maness, who represents rank-and-file workers there as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3247.
But, Bustos cautioned, officials also have to be careful to prevent another government shutdown, as the lengthy one in December and January led some job candidates to look elsewhere instead for more stability after seeing work at the lab temporarily idled.