AUGUSTA – There was a recent announcment out of Augusta concerning the intention of the governor’s office and two state commissioners to unify their chronically-underfunded departments into one umbrella agency. And sentiments are divided on the proposal.
When former Governor John Baldacci attempted to merge four natural resources departments into a unified agency, first in 2008, and again in 2009, that legislation died within the State House walls. Now his successor, Governor Paul LePage, looks to renew that fight with a more surgical approach: consolidating only the Departments of Agriculture and Conservation.
“It’s the right thing to do because that’s the way it’s done on the federal level, that’s the way it’s done in the legislature, and we’re just trying to get on the same page so that everybody looks at agriculture and forestry in the same vein,” LePage said in a State House interview Tuesday.
LePage and his Agriculture and Conservation commissioners say the plan isn’t so much about streamlining or rolling back government, as it is about concentrating federal funding, reinvigorating Maine’s economy, and marketing its valuable natural resources.
We’re not talking about breaking up the train, we’re just talking about hooking the train together,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb. “We think, particularly, agriculture and forestry can work together more, and we really envision the state parks to continue to function as they have, as a point of pride for the people of Maine,” he said.
But not everyone is quick to sign on to the proposal. Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, is not only concerned that a merger could blur the line between conservation and production, but that quality of services could also diminish.
“One of the things that we know, and that we’re hearing, and that certainly the governor is hearing, is that Maine people and businesses want better customer service from their agencies,” Pohlmann said. “And yet, with fewer and fewer people to help with the permits, to provide information, to manage the public areas, I don’t think that’s a recipe for better public service,” she said.
It’s not clear how many redundant positions would be eliminated in the wake of a potential consolidation, but one of the commissioners will be out of a job if lawmakers give the go-ahead. The governor’s office says it will present enabling legislation during the next regular session in January.