Superagency proposal hits rough water

Posted May 11, 2009, at 8:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Baldacci administration proposal to create one natural resources “superagency” within state government was roundly criticized Monday by the diverse constituent groups regulated by what are now four separate departments.

Instead, several of the organizations endorsed a less drastic measure that would shuffle various programs among the agencies and would rename the Department of Conservation the Department of Public Lands and Water.

“If you think it’s difficult now to get an appointment with a commissioner to discuss an issue, just wait until we have a superagency,” said Skip Trask, a representative of the Maine Professional Guides Association and Maine Trappers Association.

As part of his effort to make state government more efficient, Gov. John Baldacci has proposed creating a single agency from the departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; Marine Resources; Conservation; and Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.

Consolidation would save roughly $1.5 million a year, in large part by eliminating three commissioners and other redundant staff positions.

But administration officials say the bigger benefit could come from improved collaboration at a time when Maine’s natural resources — whether it’s vast timberlands, lobster or wild brook trout populations — face increased pressure.

“We have the best of the best in natural resources,” Karin Tilberg, a senior policy adviser to the governor, told members of the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee. “If we are in different agencies, it only becomes harder and harder to respond to these challenges.”

Tilberg was co-chairman of a large task force that met numerous times last year in an attempt to come up with a way to improve efficiency among the natural resources agencies. The group’s failure to reach a consensus was illustrated by the fact that various task force members backed three different proposals on Monday.

Several environmental or conservation groups, such as Maine Audubon and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, supported a measure to combine the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Marine Resources.

“I think the commissioner can adequately represent lobstermen as well as a brook trout fisherman,” said bill sponsor Rep. Thomas Watson, D-Bath.

The alternative proposal to rearrange programs within the four existing agencies and to restructure what is now the Department of Conservation earned broader support. For instance, commercial forestry and aquaculture would be moved into what is now the Department of Agriculture.

Proponents of LD 1270, introduced by Rep. Wendy Pieh, D-Bremen, called it a constituent-driven bill that will improve the services to the public and to Maine’s critically important natural resource-based industries.

But Pete Didisheim with the Natural Resources Council of Maine told the committee that his organization and others disagree with treating Maine’s timberlands as another agricultural commodity. That is because Maine’s forests support fish and wildlife that are owned by the people of Maine, not by the deed holder, he said.

Many of those who supported LD 1270 strongly criticized the governor’s proposal, LD 1453, to merge the four agencies into one. They described the superagency as too cumbersome and questioned whether it would save money.

George Smith with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine said he was told several years ago that putting the water access programs scattered across five agencies under one roof was too difficult.

“It they can’t consolidate water access programs, what are they going to do when they try to consolidate four agencies?” Smith asked.

Several opponents of Baldacci’s proposal expressed concern that their constituents would lose influence within a larger Department of Natural Resources and joked that the superagency’s commissioner would have to be “supernatural.”

“The job that this bill gives to the one person is impossible,” said Daniel Riley, an attorney representing the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.

But supporters of the governor’s proposal, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, argued that the state bureaucracy needs to adapt to better serve the public.

George Lapointe, DMR’s commissioner, said consolidation will allow the state to better leverage its resources at a time when demand for services is increasing but revenues are declining.

“The natural resources commissioners know that the path we are on is unsustainable,” Lapointe said.

The State and Local Government Committee is expected to hold a work session on the bills at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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