September 30, 2011

Officials: Merger of departments worthwhile idea

Proposal would bring together state agriculture, conservation agencies

By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage aims to merge the Departments of Agriculture and Conservation, but his goal is a more "robust natural resource economy," not a budget savings.

"Farming and forestry can be a significant part of our economic engine and both these industries are important to Maine's future," LePage, a Republican, said in a release issued Thursday.

Unlike his predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who tried -- and failed -- to merge the state's four natural resource agencies as a means of consolidating government and booking financial savings, LePage's plan aims to pool resources, not reduce them.

"The key fact is that we're not out to destroy anything, it's just the other way around. If it was a part of a budget-reduction discussion, then I would be firmly planted on the other side," said Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, in an interview.

Both Whitcomb and Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Department of Conservation, support the initiative, which has been discussed by top officials for several months.

"The governor feels that natural resources could be a driver to really help lift the state," Beardsley said in an interview. "We have all these duplicate systems and we think that we can standardize them and do a better job -- not necessarily cheaper -- but a much, much better job."

The Department of Conservation, which is charged with oversight, development and protection of 17 million acres of forest, 10.4 million acres of unorganized territories, as well as state parks and public lands, has a much larger budget than the Department of Agriculture. That department is charged with expanding agriculture and ensuring food safety. Both receive some similar funding streams from the federal government.

"Sustainability is something that ties us together," Beardsley said, explaining why the two had been picked for consolidation.

Whitcomb, who pointed out that in many states the two functions are housed in the same agency, said he is hopeful the move would add resources to his department and help it promote emerging industries.

"There's just not enough resources to meet the need, particularly in the area of marketing," he said. "We've been picked to the bone in terms of personnel. We've got one person running 14 programs here."

No layoffs would result because of the merger, both commissioners said, though some positions would be eliminated because of attrition.

There would be one layoff -- the new agency would only have one leader. It's not clear which man that would be.

"It's up to the boss," Whitcomb said, referring to LePage. Whitcomb said both he and Beardsley would be happy to serve -- or not -- in whatever role the governor chose for them.

State Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said lawmakers on the committee of oversight were briefed on the proposal earlier this week.

"Both departments are in the business of both the use of natural resources in terms of extraction and management for recreation and enjoyment, so I think they'd be a good partnership in that sense," he said.

McCabe said he'd also like to see the Department of Agriculture receive the benefits marketing and outreach afford by adding the Department of Conservation's resources.

But there's also a likelihood that the merger attempt could fail, as Baldacci's did, based on opposition from a wide group of constituencies.

"There's a lot of pushback already," McCabe said. "I'm trying to personally walk into it with an open mind. This may happen, this may not happen; what's going to be best for both these agencies and the state of Maine moving forward?"

Many industry groups were unavailable for comment on Thursday afternoon, but the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental advocacy group, issued a response to the plan.

"We are not persuaded that this would be a good idea, because it seems to suggest that Maine's woods, waters and wildlife should be treated like crops and readied for market," said Cathy Johnson, NRCM's North Woods project director, in a statement.

Whitcomb said in the past month, administration officials had been bouncing the idea off of individuals in the affected industries to gauge their response.

"If the reaction was negative we thought we'd back away, conscious of the worries and fears in the past," he said. "It seemed to be a discussion that was telling us to keep talking."

Rebekah Metzler -- 620-7016


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