Sportsmen weigh higher fees, merged agencies

Posted Jan. 30, 2009, at 7:16 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Several lawmakers joined representatives of sportsmen’s organizations Friday in criticizing Gov. John Baldacci’s proposal to create a single natural resources agency within state government by merging four existing departments.

As lawmakers prepare to tackle a more than $800 million budget shortfall in the next biennial budget, the Baldacci administration is putting forward two options for closing part of the gap faced by the natural resources agencies.

The first option would increase fees on hunters, fishermen and others who use Maine’s state parks and historic sites. Fees for hunting and fishing licenses, for instance, would rise $2.50 the first year and $1 the second year under the governor’s budget proposal.

But as an alternative, the Baldacci administration has revived a long-discussed plan to consolidate Maine’s natural resources department into a single “superagency.”

State officials estimate the state could save a minimum of $1.5 million annually by merging these agencies: Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources; Department of Conservation; Department of Marine Resources; and Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Lawmakers, sportsmen and other constituent groups served by those agencies have opposed such merger talk consistently and often passionately. This year likely will be no different if the rhetoric coming out of a Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine conference on Friday was any indication.

“I’m not interested in having this discussion about consolidating these agencies into one,” said Sen. Dave Trahan, R-Waldoboro, a member of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. “I just want people to know that. My position is ‘Over my dead body.’”

“It’s not going to save money,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. “It’s going to cost a hell of a lot of money to implement it.”

Underlying some of that opposition — whether among sportsmen or farmers or commercial fishermen — is the fear that those constituent groups would lose funding, dedicated staff or political sway in a consolidated department.

The governor’s plan to merge four departments into one isn’t the only consolidation proposal likely to be on the table this legislative session, however.

A state task force that met last year to examine the consolidation issue failed to come to a consensus.

But more than a dozen members of that group are proposing to place agriculture, forestry and aquaculture in one department and then create a separate department to oversee the state’s public lands. DIF&W and the Department of Marine Resources would remain separate entities under this proposal.

Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners of Maine and a supporter of the plan, pointed out that the plan put forward by the governor wasn’t even on the table during the task force meetings.

“Nobody thought it was a good idea,” Doak said. “It wasn’t even brought up as an option.”

Baldacci spokesman David Farmer stressed that the consolidation proposal is being put forward as an alternative to higher user fees. If the sporting community can live with the fee increases, then the consolidation proposal goes nowhere, Farmer said.

Although obviously linked to the budget debate, the merger proposal is being submitted as a separate bill to avoid interjecting more controversy into the budget bill, he said.

“We believe there are real administrative savings that build upon the findings of the task force,” Farmer said.

Some attendees Friday said they do not object to paying a few dollars more for a license, as long as the money pays to protect wildlife and help keep wardens in the field. The governor’s budget proposal would not eliminate any warden or marine patrol positions.

SAM’s executive director, George Smith, has promised to fight both proposals to increase fees or merge the agencies. Smith and other several other speakers said the state needs to find a way to get kayakers, hikers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts to help pay for the services that game wardens and DIF&W biologists provide.

“We all have to pay to play, and we have to find a way to broaden that base,” said Sen. Bruce Bryant, an Oxford Democrat and chairman of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

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