AUGUSTA, Maine — Groups representing farmers, sportsmen, commercial fishermen and loggers criticized a Baldacci administration proposal to study once again ways to improve collaboration among Maine’s natural resources agencies, dismissing it as a backdoor attempt to merge the departments.
Last winter, Gov. John Baldacci proposed creating a single natural resources “superagency” by merging the Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; Marine Resources; Conservation; and Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. The administration forecast the merger would save the state $1.5 million annually.
The proposal met vehement opposition from constituent groups served by those departments and ultimately failed to win legislative support.
With the state facing an additional $438 million shortfall, Baldacci has proposed creating a working group to find $1.25 million in savings from the four departments through June 2011. If the group fails to reach its target, the State Budget Office would impose additional cuts expected on the agencies to cover the gap.
Karin Tilberg, the governor’s senior policy adviser on natural resources issues, said Thursday that a key focus of the working group would be implementing eight recommendations from an earlier task force that studied the issue.
Those recommendations include a single license-issuing system for all the departments, co-locating regional offices, creating a single entity to manage all public lands, and giving the Department of Conservation responsibility for all boat launches.
“What we are trying to suggest here is let’s take some ideas that already have merit and see if we can put them together to find some of the money that we need,” Tilberg told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
Some observers believe the administration is still determined to merge the agencies, however.
“Regardless of what is being presented here, this is really the first step toward natural resources consolidation, which we are opposed to,” said Jon Olson, executive secretary for the Maine Farm Bureau. Unlike many industries in Maine, the agriculture industry is growing and consolidating the departments would rob farmers of a direct representative within the governor’s Cabinet, Olson said.
David Cousens, a fisherman and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, also interpreted the latest working group as a step toward consolidation.
Cousens, whose organization served on the 2008 task force that created the eight recommendations, said he resented the fact that there are no representatives from any regulated industries on the latest working group.
Earlier this year, lobstermen and other commercial fishermen agreed to pay more for their licenses in order to minimize budget cuts to the Department of Marine Resources. Cousens urged lawmakers to look elsewhere for savings rather than cut DMR field staff needed to keep Maine’s massive lobster industry afloat.
“The industry has stepped up and is paying a lot more,” Cousens said. “I pay $800 a year for tags, and I’m not complaining … But don’t cut the budget, don’t cut them any more, and don’t consolidate. Consolidation is not going to save them any more” money.
George Smith with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine said he calculated that state funding now accounts for less than 2 percent of the total budgets for the natural resources agencies. The rest is generated by fees — such as hunting, fishing or snowmobiling licenses — or other nonstate sources.
Smith accused Baldacci of starving the agencies and called the governor’s latest working group proposal “the funeral for natural resources agencies in Maine.”
“If these agencies had $1,250,000 in savings to offer up, the governor and this committee would already have taken it,” Smith told the lawmakers. “Indeed, you’ve cut too deeply already into agencies and missions that define our quality of life and make us proud to be Mainers.”
Other organizations that testified in opposition to the working group or submitted testimony in opposition included the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, the Maine Snowmobile Association, the Maine Aquaculture Association and the Maine Forest Products Council.
Public hearings on the governor’s supplemental budget continue today and are slated to run through next Thursday. For a detailed schedule of public hearing topics, go to www.maine.gov/legis/house/jt_com/afa.htm.