AUGUSTA — Stakeholders appear divided over Gov. Paul LePage's proposed merger of the Agriculture and Conservation departments.
LePage announced the consolidation plan last year. On Tuesday, lawmakers on the Legislature's Agriculture Committee began hearing public comments on the actual legislation.
The state's influential forest products lobby stood firmly behind the proposal, arguing that it could lead to further promotion and development of the state's timber industry.
LePage has championed the merger as bolstering the state's forest and farming economies. On Tuesday, the Maine Farm Bureau also testified in favor of the plan, LD 1830, but acknowledged that some of its membership did not support it.
Several farmers told lawmakers they were concerned the bill's plan to have one commissioner split duties between two very different agencies may hurt the responsiveness of the new department.
Conservation groups are unanimously opposed to the plan. Several groups said the mission of the new agency focused too much on the extraction of natural resources and too little on protection. That, combined with the fact that the merger isn't expected to produce any cost savings, had several opponents wondering why the administration was proceeding with the plan.
Some who testified wondered if the merger would cost money.
George Smith, former head of Sportman's Alliance of Maine, urged lawmakers to "insist on an honest and accurate fiscal note." Smith warned that merging two completely different departments could mean combining computer systems.
Smith and conservation groups noted that given the stark mission differences between Agriculture and Conservation, combining the two could create a larger, inefficient bureaucracy.
"It's a fact that small, mission-focused agencies work better than large departments bound up in bureaucracy and strangled by conflicts of competing interests," Smith said.
Patrick Strauch, head of the Maine Forest Products Council, lauded the plan. Strauch said his industry, which is currently overseen by the Conservation Department, had long been envious of the Agriculture Department's promotion and advocacy of farming. Currently, he said, the goals of the forest products industry were a distant second to the Conservation Department's culture of natural resources protection.
The administration says the consolidation would help Maine align its agencies with its counterparts at the federal level. Conservation Commissioner William Beardsley told the committee the new department will feature the same structural and administrative composition, the same budgets and basically the same staffing levels.
Some farmers challenged the administration's claim that the new agency would further the goals of the state's farmers.
Former Democratic Rep. Wendy Pieh said one commissioner may not be able to respond to the state's more than 7,000 farms. The Maine Organic Farmers Association also opposed the bill.
The Maine Farm Bureau supports the consolidation, saying it would create a more streamlined agency.
Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the merger would remove any "high level focus" on conservation.
"We support natural-resources-based economic development, but we don't want to see economic development become the exclusive role of the Department of Conservation," Johnson recently told the Sun Journal. She said the guiding principles described in the legislation appear to exclude goals designed to protect and preserve the state's natural resources.
LePage was explicit in outlining his goals for the new agency. In a written statement last month he mentioned "economy" several times, saying the merger was not just a cost-saving proposal, but one that would create jobs.
"Farming and forestry are an important part of Maine’s heritage, and can play a significant role in our economic engine," LePage said. "These industries are important to Maine’s future, and it is important we maximize the potential of our natural-resource-based economy to provide jobs and economic prosperity to Maine people."
If it passes, the plan will save $139,980 in fiscal year 2013 — the cost of one commissioner position. That appears to be the only savings and the only job cut.
The commissioner of the new agency will appoint two deputy commissioners whose duties will be to assist the commissioner "with agriculture, forestry and natural-resources-based economic development."
The fact that upper-level staff will have no conservation directive underscored Johnson's concerns about the mission change. She said the plan appeared to be a strategy to bury the Conservation Department's mission to conserve Maine's natural resources "deep within another bureaucracy."
Johnson and others also question whether the Agriculture Committee would have enough time to adequately address the proposal.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, speaking on behalf of farmers in his district, said the merger plan lacked details. Fredette recommended forming a stakeholders group to hammer out the specifics.
Former Gov. John Baldacci twice tried — and twice failed — to merge the state's natural resource agencies. LePage's plan may stand a better chance because unlike previous merger proposals, he'll likely only face opposition from environmental groups.
Baldacci's consolidation plan included Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which have vocal and effective lobbying organizations.