POLITICS

Maine’s Agriculture and Conservation departments to merge Aug. 30, but little will change

Posted June 27, 2012, at 5:40 p.m.
Last modified June 28, 2012, at 8:30 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s Agriculture and Conservation departments will merge on Aug. 30, but little will change on that date and little has been determined about how the two departments with more than 700 employees and a combined $96.5 million budget will operate as one.

Starting to figure that out is the work of top staff at the agriculture and conservation departments this summer, said Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb, who will become commissioner of the combined Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

“We’re looking at ways we can already work together and looking at specific law changes,” Whitcomb said. “That all has to be put together and proposed to the next Legislature.”

Discussions about those merger specifics are “very, very preliminary,” Whitcomb added.

The merger of the departments of agriculture and conservation became law this spring when the union passed as part of a supplemental budget package. Gov. Paul LePage announced his intentions last fall to combine the two departments, saying a joint department could better serve farming- and forestry-related industries and help them drive economic development.

A combined department could provide more help to the state’s farmers, foresters and other natural resource-based businesses in marketing their products, said Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the ranking Democrat on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

But McCabe said he’s concerned he hasn’t seen more detail about the departments’ merger.

“My concern was that we didn’t develop an actual plan,” he said. “At some point, you need sort of the nuts and bolts of what’s being proposed so that people can react to it.”

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, who is chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, agreed. “This is in some ways a massive change that may affect billions of dollars worth of money flowing around the countryside,” he said.

Even without those specifics, the departments of agriculture and conservation have started collecting information from representatives of affected industries and members of the public. The departments held listening sessions last week in Orono and earlier this week in Augusta, and have scheduled one for Aug. 7 in Caribou. They’ve also set up a website where visitors can leave comments.

“We have not made specific proposals for them to react to yet,” Whitcomb said. “It’s more a chance for the wide range of interests to say whatever they’d like to say.”

The law that merges the two departments into one lays out specific plans only for the agency’s top level.

One commissioner will lead the department with the help of two deputies, one focused on “agriculture, forestry and natural resources-based economic development,” and the other focused on the agency’s day-to-day operations. The agency will be organized into seven divisions focused on agriculture, forestry, animal and plant health, land use and other areas currently overseen by the two departments.

“I thought it was kind of strange that the Legislature mandated this and didn’t have to give them more guidance,” said Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine who attended last week’s session in Orono. “I think, perhaps, there’s going to be some trial and error at first and maybe they’re going to have to reorganize later on.”

Camire said she wants to make sure food safety isn’t overshadowed as a priority in a larger department.

When the departments’ merger takes effect Aug. 30, Whitcomb said, only the commissioner’s office will reorganize.

“Everybody else’s job stays the same,” he said. “The 732 employees still have a responsibility to carry out what the law tells them to do.”

In the coming months, the combined department plans to develop detailed legislation for how the agency will operate and propose it when a new set of lawmakers arrive in Augusta for the 2013 session. If no such legislation passes by December 2014, the merger will be reversed.

“Frankly, this is a chicken-and-the-egg-type story,” said David Bell, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission. “Do you lay out all the detail and have people react to that? Or do you lay out a vision and a concept and have people react to that?”

Even if the details aren’t in place, it’s a positive sign the departments are seeking public comment, said Jim Robbins, CEO of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont.

“The fact they asked for our input is very significant,” said Robbins, who said he hopes a combined department doesn’t diminish the clout of Maine’s forestry industry. “It’s nice to know government is asking for input from those they’re going to be working with.”

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