March 26, 2013- Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry

Testimony from Brewer Hearing

 

Here you can find all of the public testimony shared at the public hearing in Brewer.

 

Brewer Public Hearing Public Testimony

 

Follow up on the HOME Fund

The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition provided the committees with follow up information on the HOME Fund.

Agriculture Conservation and Forestry

The Appropriations Committee, in conjunction with the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, held a public hearing on March 26, 2013 on the proposed budget for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry and the programs administered by the Department.   In addition, the hearing included three agricultural boards and the Baxter State Park Authority.

It should be noted that the merger of the Departments of Agriculture and Conservation were approved by the Legislature in a budget bill, and became effective on September 12, 2012.   The Governor’s proposed 2014-2015 Biennial budget moves the programs of both departments under one single departmental umbrella.   These programs include:

Department of Agriculture                                                          Department of Conservation

 

  • Animal Welfare Fund                                                                     Administration – forestry
  • Beverage Container Enforcement Fund                                 Boating Facilities Fund
  • Certified Seed Fund                                                                        Coastal Island Registry
  • Div. Agricultural Resource Development                                               Division of Forest Protection
  • Div. of Animal Health and Industry                                           Floodplain Management
  • Division of Plant Industry                                                              Forest Fire Control – Municipal Grants
  • Division of Quality Assurance & Regulation                           Forest Health & Monitoring
  • Food Assistance Program                                                             Forest Policy & Management
  • Harness Racing Commission                                                        Forest Recreation Resource Fund
  • Land For Maine’s Future                                                               Geological Survey
  • Maine Coastal Program                                                                 Land Management & Planning
  • Maine Farms for the Future Program                                      Maine Conservation Corps
  • Milk Commission                                                                              Maine Land Use Planning Commission
  • Municipal Planning Assistance                                                    Maine State Parks Dev. Fund
  • Board of Pesticides Control                                                         Maine State Parks Program
  • Potato Quality Control Board                                                      Natural Areas Program
  • Rural Rehabilitation                                                                         Office of the Commissioner
  • Seed Potato Board                                                                          Off-Road Recreational Vehicles Program
  • Maine Dairy Farm Stabilization Fund                                        Parks – General Operations

 Major Issues

 Maine Dairy Stabilization Fund.     The Maine Dairy Stabilization Fund program has long been a controversial issue.   Maine currently has 304 dairy farms ranging from 10 acres to 1700 acres and generates more than $570 million each year to the Maine economy.    When milk prices decline, dairy farmers are squeezed by rising prices in oil, grain, and hay.   The Stabilization Fund was created to assist dairy farmers to keep them afloat during drops in milk prices.    The Fund is funded by a milk handling fee, which has been supplemented by General Fund appropriations when the Stabilization fund was insufficient to prevent the hemorrhaging of dairy farms in Maine.   Since 2007, $30 million has been paid to dairy farms in the stabilization program.    The controversy has been the method of payments that small dairy farmers complain favor the larger dairy farms, at the expense of the smaller farms.

New Position Created.    The Budget creates a new unclassified position, “Assistant to the Commissioner for Public Information.”

Deputy Commissioners.   The Budget proposes to change the titles of two deputy commissioners – one to serve as the Deputy Commissioner of Operations and Administration, and the other to serve as Deputy Commissioner of Marketing and Development.   Eleven state agencies have deputy commissioners.   Only Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry and Health and Human Services have more than one Deputy Commissioner.   Corrections has three associate commissioners, and DAFS has one Deputy Commissioner and two associate commissioners.    The Budget also creates and assistant to the Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.

Harvesting of timber in State Parks.    Currently, the Bureau of Public Lands allows the harvesting of timber on public lands, but not in state parks.   The Governor proposes to expand the authority of the Bureau to allow timber harvesting in State Parks using policies consistent with the ones used by the State on public lands.

Blueberry Research and extension programs implemented by the University of Maine System.    The budget bill requires the University of Maine to abide by decisions made by the Wild Blueberry Advisory Committee relating to the prioritization and funding of blueberry research and projects.

Agriculture Conservation and Forestry (ACF)

Portions of the Governor’s budget related to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee can be found here.

Both AFA and ACF were joined by Commissioner Walt Whitcomb of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry or the pending merged Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.  Commissioner Whitcomb presented testimony on behalf of the Department.

The committees asked questions about the status of the merger between the Conservation and Agriculture departments as put forward in the last Legislature (language from the 125th may be found in this document in Part W).  Concerns were expressed about the proposed repeal of current language that repeals the merger if legislation detailing it is not enacted by December 31, 2014.

Rep. Mike Carey asked that the committees receive a budget that does not assume the merger of the departments.

Further concerns were expressed over the reduction of nearly 80 positions in the merged department under the Governor’s plan.

Natural Resource Agencies

GF Positions end of 125th GF Positions as proposed by the Governor Difference between Biennia
   Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry

48.500

249.500

201.000

   Conservation

284.061

0.000

(284.061)

   Environmental Protection

67.000

70.500

3.500

   Inland Fisheries & Wildlife

228.000

228.000

0.000

   Marine Resources

82.000

83.000

1.000

   Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
   New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission
   St. Croix International Waterway Commission
Total Natural Resources

709.561

631.000

(78.561)

Commissioner Whitcomb did not provide complete answers in response to these concerns.

It was also noted that the Department has a bill before the ACF committee (LD 837) that mirrors much of the language in the budget.  The Commissioner offered that there is not a good explanation for using two vehicles.

Representative Peter Kent raised specific objections about both moving forward with a merger that has not been fully authorized by the Legislature and the expansion of timber harvesting into Maine’s State Parks, not merely on State lands as is the practice now.  Commissioner Whitcomb countered that it was the Department’s belief that the law required they move forward with the merger.  He also was unable to explain the current harvesting policy.

Representative Jeff Timberlake laid the fault for summer meetings required to formalize the merger not taking place at the former Chairs of the ACF committee (Rep. Peter Edgecomb and Sen. Roger Sherman), saying, “they didn’t want to come down from the County.”

Members of the public testified to express their concern over many of the same issues raised by legislators.  Additionally, others asked that funding be restored to provide a Director for the Land for Maine’s Future program.  This position was eliminated with the repeal of the State Planning Office.

Further concern was expressed about the shift in the department’s mission statement to focus on Maine’s natural resource “economy” perhaps to the exclusion of other aspects of Maine’s natural resources.

Public Testimony

Maine Wild Blueberry Commission

David Bell, Director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission presented testimony in support of items in the Governor’s budget related to the MWBC.

Schedule

Wednesday, March 27 at 1:00 PM the Appropriations committee will be joined by the Joint Standing Committees on Health and Human Services, Criminal Justice and Public Safety, Judiciary, Insurance and Financial Services and Veterans and Legal Affairs to conduct a public hearing on items related to the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

The full schedule may be found here.

Audio

Please feel free to join the committee as they do their work. You may also listen online using the following link: http://www.maine.gov/legis/ofpr/appropriations_committee/audio/index.htm

Thank you and please let me know if you have questions.

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