As Gov. Janet Mills prepares to announce her final Cabinet nominee, there is renewed discussion about breaking up the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to better serve farming, logging and land preservation interests.

Mills, who is expected this week to announce her pick to head the department, appears lukewarm on the prospect of dismantling the department into smaller, more tightly focused agencies. But the Democrat also isn’t ruling it out.

“I’m interested in seeing the figures, seeing the cost-savings or efficiencies and making sure we can hear everybody” from the various industries, Mills said this week. “I think we can do it as a team. I don’t believe in changing things dramatically unless it is going to save money and be more reflective of the values of Maine people.”

As governor, Republican Paul LePage merged the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources with the Department of Conservation 6½ years ago in a move he said would improve coordination and yield efficiencies. The department now includes all agricultural programs as well as the Maine Forest Service, Maine Geological Survey, state parks/public lands and outdoor recreation programs.

Some farmers and many of the state’s major environmental or conservation organizations opposed LePage’s consolidation plan over fears that their respective interests would receive less attention in a larger department.

Now that debate is beginning again with the arrival of a new, Democratic administration.

Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, said Wednesday that her organization’s members “are in strong support of returning DACF to its previous composition.”

Any attempt to restructure the state agency would require legislative approval, however.

“There are a lot of people who would like to look at the issue again, so I think we are going to have that conversation,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, a Winthrop farmer and the newly appointed chairman of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

Hickman is the lead sponsor of a bill titled “An Act To Reorganize the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.” The Winthrop Democrat said the bill text had yet to be completed, however, and that he wanted to explore the issue more before he advocates one way or the other on the issue.

For her part, Mills said she is hearing from people who want to split up the department. Speaking Tuesday at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta, Mills said she would welcome farmers’ views on the best way for the department to represent “the disparate and equally important” sectors served by the agency.

“I know there are different opinions just among the farming community alone about land preservation, conservation easements, pesticides, milk price supports and many other things,” Mills said. “I sense that farmers themselves are a more diverse group than ever before. But I believe that a department that is led by a team of intelligent people, who are also good listeners – people with common sense, intelligence and a bit of dirt under their nails – that that department can bring together those diverse interests and views and ensure everyone gets a fair shake and a fair share from state government.”

While LePage predicted his consolidation would save money over the long-run, it was never touted as a way to reduce state spending. Instead, LePage and other supporters said it would improve coordination among state employees, better align Maine with federal programs and help market the state’s natural products.

Former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci had failed to win support for an even larger “natural resources” agency that would also have folded in the departments of Marine Resources and Inland, Fisheries and Wildlife.

Beth Ahearn, political director of Maine Conservation Voters, said her organization is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the issue. Much depends, Ahearn said, not only on who Mills taps as commissioner, but also the deputies, bureau chiefs and leadership team that person creates.

“We want conservation and forestry as well as (agriculture) to have strong leadership, which they haven’t had in the last eight years,” Ahearn said. “With adequate leadership this model may work, so I am willing to give it a try. But if it does not work, I am going to recommend dismantling it.”

Mills said Tuesday that she would announce her commissioner nominee “shortly.” Legislative committees will hold public hearings on the 14 commissioner nominees as well as Mills’ choice to lead the Workers’ Compensation Board. The nominees must then be confirmed by the Maine Senate.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH


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