AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday formally announced legislation that would combine the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources with the Department of Conservation.
The governor announced his intention last fall to propose a merger of those two state agencies to better serve the state’s needs and create efficiencies. The idea has the support of Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb, Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley and many natural resource industry leaders.
“Farming and forestry are an important part of Maine’s heritage, and can play a significant role in our economic engine,” LePage said in a statement. “These industries are important to Maine’s future, and it is important we maximize the potential of our natural resource-based economy to provide jobs and economic prosperity to Maine people.”
In the current fiscal year, the Agriculture Department’s budget is $47.7 million while Conservation’s is $48.6 million, according to the State Budget Office. Although there likely would be budget savings by combining the two departments, LePage has said the primary reason for proposing a merger is to give Maine a more unified voice in Washington, D.C.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, has been a farmer most of his life and said “It makes sense to combine the resources of both departments to emphasize the importance of being good stewards of Maine’s land.”
Once the bill is drafted and assigned an LD number, it is expected to be referred to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.
The bill could have bipartisan support, but some groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, have opposed a merger.
“We are not persuaded that this would be a good idea because it seems to suggest that Maine’s woods, waters and wildlife should be treated like crops and readied for market,” Cathy Johnson, NRCM’s north woods project director, said last fall.
Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the lead Democrat on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said he supports the merger as a concept.
“Unfortunately, it’s getting late in the session to start talking about this,” McCabe said. “We first heard about this last summer, but it hasn’t even got to our committee yet.
“I think there is also a feeling among some of ‘Why spend time on this if it’s not going to result in significant savings?’”
Several years ago, then-Gov. John Baldacci proposed a similar plan to combine four departments — Agriculture, Conservation, Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. That initiative failed.