A Merger in Name Only

Maine’s Department of Agriculture merged with the Department of Conservation on August 30, a date established in law by the legislature and governor. But the only thing merged was the name. It’s now the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.

No one moved. No programs merged. No money was saved.

The new department has 732 full-time and seasonal employees and an annual budget of $96.5 million, about what the Department of Health and Human Services spends each month. The state’s natural resource agencies – the drivers of our economy – get a smaller percentage of the state budget every year.

Two thirds of the employees in the merged department came from DOC’s Forestry Division. The Department of Agriculture only brought 150 employees to the new department – although the powerful farm groups successfully demanded that the new department’s commissioner be a farmer. The former Ag Department Commissioner who now heads the combined departments, Walt Whitcomb, is a dairy farmer.

Governor Paul LePage issued a statement on August 29 saying, “I expect this new department will accomplish great things and ensure that Maine’s natural resources, which are such an important part of our heritage, will continue to play a leadership role in our future prosperity.”

It’s hard to see how. Whitcomb acknowledged, “We are suffering from a lack of resources. We need to reach out for other resources.”

Yesterday, a typically up-beat Commissioner Whitcomb told me the merger would be accomplished, “in a thousand little ways, rather than a major action.” He predicted this process would go on for “years.”

As the various interests – farming, forestry, public lands and parks – jockey for position, funding, and staff in their new department, it will be interesting to see which comes out on top. For the first time, farmers will now have to battle for resources with the state’s powerful outdoor recreation, conservation, and environmental groups and members who pay close attention to budgets, programs, and issues involving the state’s public lands and parks.

Whitcomb told me he has been actively involved in the effort to resolve serious access problems at Crescent Beach, a state park in Cape Elizabeth, an issue I’ve written about in the past and continue to follow (expect an update from me next week on this important matter). This is a good example of how the former Agriculture Commissioner – who could focus all of his time and energy on farming issues in the past – has been pulled in a new direction.

It’s hard for me to see how farmers will be better served in this new merged department. Yet Whitcomb, a seasoned, popular, and respected political leader who has served in the legislature, told me, “I like the hand we’ve been dealt.”

 “We’ve got different cultures,” he said, reflecting on how he’s going to bring together farming, forestry, and public lands and parks. “It’s a fascinating collection of resources,” he said.

There was one thing Walt could point to so far as a result of the merger. Beardsley’s secretarial position was changed to a business manager for the new department. Candidates for that position were being interviewed the day I met with Whitcomb.

Walt noted that a real merger could not happen until the legislature acts to change state laws, and said he will also have to closely examine what is allowed by the federal government which funds many of the new department’s programs.

Surprisingly, the partnership that was established between the administration and legislature to move the merger along has been suspended. A half-dozen meetings between Whitcomb and his staff and the legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee were called for in the legislation that authorized the merger. Whitcomb met once with the ACF committee on September 20.

At that meeting, ACF Committee member Rep. Jeff Timberlake, according to the meeting’s minutes, “expressed his frustration with the merger timetable.” As the sponsor of the merger legislation, he intended to have a second bill, approving a complete merger plan and fully authorizing it to be implemented, ready for the next legislative session in January of 2013. “I think we should be further ahead,” he said.

Whitcomb reminded Timberlake that the legislature gave him only very limited authority, basically focused on reorganizing and merging functions and staff inside the Commissioner’s office. The meeting minutes report that Whitcomb predicted, “it will take years to implement all of the changes that are likely to be needed to fully implement the merger.”

At that point, Rep. Timberlake reminded the Commissioner that the legislature must enact a bill “implementing the new department” or the departments revert back to separate departments at the end of the 126th legislative session.

Rep. Timberlake wasn’t the only legislator to complain about the pace of this project or their lack of participation in the merger. Rep. Russell Black said, “Up to this point, the committee hasn’t been in the process, a process moving very fast in terms of what is being done.” It’s important to note that both Timberlake and Russell are Republicans.

Given these and other complaints, it’s surprising that the second meeting between Whitcomb and the legislative committee, scheduled for October 3rd, was postponed until after the November 6 election. The current ACF Committee will no longer exist on December 4th, giving that committee just 17 business days to impact the merger. In effect, this committee’s members are no longer part of the merger process.

In a separate comment made to me, another ACF Committee member, Rep. Jeff McCabe, said, “The whole agreement with the merger was for us to meet and work it out. I’m regretting that deal.”

And Whitcomb has already submitted a budget for the new department for the next two years. He said not to expect any significant changes from the budgets that would have been submitted had the two departments remained separated.

During the legislative debate over the merger, someone anonymously provided me with a detailed plan for the merger. I asked Whitcomb about the plan and questioned him in some detail about it. I’ve just posted his responses and more about this issue in the Outdoor News Blog on my website, www.georgesmithmaine.com.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.