AUGUSTA, Maine — A merger of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Department of Conservation would give Maine a crucial, unified voice in Washington, D.C., Gov. Paul LePage told a roomful of farmers and growers on Tuesday.
Speaking at the 71st annual Maine Agriculture Trades Show, which runs through Thursday, the governor highlighted his recent proposal to combine the two state departments.
The governor announced his intent last fall and his idea has been embraced both by Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb and Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley.
His plan has not been presented to lawmakers yet but spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said she expected that to happen soon.
LePage also told the audience Tuesday that Maine’s natural resources make the state poised to be the “breadbasket of New England,” and said his administration is working to make that happen.
“If we can ask our congresswoman to ask the feds to leave us alone, we can do a lot more,” LePage said to polite applause, referring to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who attended the trade show.
After the governor’s remarks, Pingree said that his proposal to merge the two similar departments had merit, but she expected some industries to be concerned about whether their voice would be drowned out in such a big department.
Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the lead Democrat on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said the governor’s office has been in communication with lawmakers about the proposal.
McCabe said a merger makes sense on paper but echoed Pingree’s sentiment about voices being lost in the fray.
Former Gov. John Baldacci unsuccessfully tried to combine the Departments of Agriculture, Conservation, Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife during his tenure.
This week’s trade show in Augusta is one of the state’s largest agricultural events and was expected to draw more than 5,000 people over three days, including potato farmers, blueberry growers and others.
In addition to pitching his department merger, LePage also talked about lowering energy costs, something that has dominated his public remarks in recent days. He said all small businesses, including farmers, would benefit from more competitive electricity costs.
The governor also talked about the need for Maine to re-brand itself and its products going forward.
“In the past, Maine had a great brand; it’s not quite as strong as it used to be,” he said, adding that he wants Mainers to be able to enjoy all that the state has to offer in the summertime, not just out-of-staters.