Commissioners dragging feet on agriculture-conservation merger, lawmakers say

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 20, 2012, at 6:01 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Frustration and worry surfaced among the 12 members of the legislative committee that has jurisdiction over the merger of two state agencies that will create a new Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

During the committee’s meeting Monday at the University of Maine, Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources Commissioner Walt Whitcomb and Department of Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley presented loose plans for the union of their two agencies.

The problem legislators said they had was that merger planning is progressing too slowly and leaving hosts of unanswered questions.

Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, was lead sponsor of the original bill to merge the two departments, but on Monday he was among those who criticized how the effort was progressing.

Under an amendment to the original law passed late in the last session, the committee has authority to approve the merger or submit legislation during the 126th Legislative session to improve the existing law.

Timberlake said he was frustrated with the pace of the planning, arguing that at this rate it’s possible the merger might not happen at all if the Legislature can’t meet its deadline next session.

If the merger bill doesn’t reach the 126th Legislature on time or isn’t approved, the merger dies and the system reverts back to its previous structure with two separate departments, Timberlake said.

“With the timetable we’re working on, we’re not going to make it there,” Timberlake said.

Senate committee chairman Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, said he has seen the state consolidate its jails and schools under Gov. John Baldacci and wasn’t pleased with either result.

“So when we’re talking about consolidation here, I’m a little concerned we aren’t hearing more specific answers about specific things,” Sherman said.

Republicans and Democrats largely were unified in their concerns.

“I think there was a shared frustration between the Republicans and Democrats as far as not having a timeline or having clear outcomes for this merger,” Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said after Monday’s meeting.

Whitcomb said most of the fledgling department’s work thus far has consisted of organizing the commissioner’s office, a step in the merger that is required by statute to happen by Aug. 30.

Under the current plan, the merger would create a department led by one commissioner, who would appoint two deputy commissioners. The divisions of the department would report to the deputy commissioners and, Gov. Paul LePage has argued, work more closely to be good stewards of Maine’s natural resources and give the state a unified voice in Washington, D.C.

The organization of the offices under the commissioner and deputy commissioners remains fluid. Whitcomb would take over as commissioner of the new department.

Members of the committee said they were worried some divisions might get lost in the shuffle and services might suffer.

Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, who was forced out of office by term limits this year, said she was “in complete opposition” to the merger since it was proposed back in February.

She said she has never heard a complaint about the Department of Agriculture from a constituent and is worried the reorganization might end up “swallowing” the organization or leaving it with a staff shortage.

“I did not want to be responsible for undoing something that was working really well in state government,” Schneider said, adding that she didn’t feel there was a reason for a merger if agencies would just collaborate more effectively.

The committee plans to hold six to eight meetings with commissioners in coming months, with the next one scheduled sometime in September.

More information on the merger is available at www.maine.gov/acf/index.shtml.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/08/20/politics/legislators-concerned-that-agriculture-conservation-merger-wont-happen-quickly-enough/ printed on July 28, 2014