Baldacci revives plan to merge natural resources departments

Posted Jan. 12, 2009, at 9:57 p.m.

The Baldacci administration is proposing to merge four state agencies that handle natural resources issues into one as a way to cut administrative costs and improve efficiency.

The merger proposal is being submitted separately from the two-year, $6.1 billion budget that seeks to rein in state spending by eliminating more than 200 positions and trimming some state programs, particularly in the areas of corrections and health and human services.

But administration officials say merging the four agencies could eliminate the need for fee hikes on those who enjoy hunting, fishing and using Maine’s state parks or historic sites. The two-year budget proposal, which is now in the hands of state lawmakers, includes fee increases ranging from a $2.50 hike for hunting and fishing licenses to doubling the cost to reserve a group shelter.

“The governor expects that the natural resources bill will be on a parallel track to the budget,” said Joy Leach, a Baldacci spokeswoman.

Baldacci’s proposal would consolidate the following into a single natural resource agency, saving a minimum of $1.5 million annually: Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources; Department of Conservation; Department of Marine Resources; and Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The Department of Environmental Protection was not included in the consolidation proposal because the agency’s strong regulatory obligations would be difficult to blend with the others, Leach said.

The proposal is sure to encounter stiff opposition from some groups, as evidenced by the entrenched positions on a task force that was supposed to recommend to the governor a cost-saving proposal for the natural resources agencies.

Over the course of eight meetings, the large task force managed to agree on eight ways to improve coordination and increase efficiency among the disparate agencies. These recommendations included such things as a centralized system for issuing licenses or passes, and co-location of regional offices to improve collaboration and communication.

But the group failed to agree on the larger issue of reconfiguring the state agencies. Instead, the task force offered several options.

“While there was much discussion and some common ground, we did not have enough time to work out a plan that could gain a large enough support base to move forward and achieve consensus,” the group wrote in a report presented to Baldacci last week. “The work in this area has not been in vain, and we hope something can be developed that will gain widespread support from those groups and individuals who are served by the natural resource agencies.”

Dennis Smith, an angler who served on the task force, has argued that merging DIF&W and Marine Resources would allow the state to more effectively manage both commercial and recreational fisheries as well as those that attract little to no attention today.

Smith said he would support the governor’s proposal, as long as fisheries management is based on biology and what is best for all species.

“It was an opportunity lost,” Smith said of the task force, “because people were bound and determined to keep the status quo.”

But George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he believes there was considerable support for something other than consolidation on the task force but said it was never brought to a vote.

George Smith said he and others plan to present their alternative vision to the Legislature. That plan would move forestry and aquaculture into the Department of Agriculture, create a stand-alone public parks department and move recreational vehicles into DIF&W. The Department of Marine Resources would remain separate from DIF&W, but the two agencies could share offices, he said.

The SAM executive director said he doesn’t believe the governor’s consolidation proposal has a chance.

“It’s the same plan that was rejected last year, and I think he knows that,” he said. “That’s why he didn’t put it in the budget.”

George Smith also vowed to fight the proposed $2.50 increase in hunting and fishing license fees this fiscal year, which would be followed by a $1 increase in 2011. He said sportsmen already pay enough money to support the services they receive. The problem is that game wardens and others are having to spend more time serving the nonpaying public through such things as search and rescue and animal complaints.

Other fee hikes proposed in the governor’s biennial budget include: raising state residents’ fee for seasonal passes to state parks from $30 to $35 for individuals and from $60 to $70 for vehicles; raising group camping reservation fees from $10 to $25; increasing the fee for reserving a developed group shelter from $50 to $100; and increasing the fees nonresidents pay to enter state parks.

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