Merging Would Hurt Maine’s Natural Resource Agencies
Governor John Baldacci has tried twice to consolidate the state’s natural resource agencies. The legislature soundly defeated both proposals but that apparently didn’t discourage the governor. He’s back with a third proposal now. Three strikes and he’ll be out.
The road to consolidation of natural resource agencies has been paved with broken promises.
The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), for which I work, asked the following question in its 2006 gubernatorial candidate survey: Will you oppose any proposal to merge the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife into a large natural resource department?
Governor Baldacci responded, “Yes I will oppose such a merger. I have said repeatedly over the past four years that departments like Inland Fisheries and Wildlife may be small by comparison to other state agencies, but they serve large and distinct constituencies that deserve, and have reason to expect, that they will have an agency whose focus is on their interests and needs.”
He was right then. And he’s wrong now.
The Governor stubbornly insists that money can be saved by merging the Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Conservation, Marine Resources, and Agriculture Departments.
But these agencies have been neglected and starved of the state’s resources. State funding for natural resource agencies has gone steadily downhill, comprising 4.3 percent of the state budget in 1981, 3.6 percent in 1990, 2.7 percent in 2000, 2.3 percent in 2006, and just 1.8 percent this year. The governor’s new proposal requires another $1,250,000 in cuts from these departments.
This year, IF&W has no public funding at all. Nada. Not one cent. The agency is entirely funded by sportsmen through their purchase of licenses, permits, registrations, and payment of excise taxes on their gear.
All of the state’s natural resource agencies play critical roles in Maine’s natural resource economy. They have been recognized as especially important to rural economies and receive little or no support from General Fund taxes and consequently cannot offer any significant tax relief through a merger. These agencies serve large and distinct constituencies, offer a broad range of services and functions that will only be diminished in a single large department, and would not be strengthened by consolidation.
A research paper prepared for GrowSmart by the University of Maine examined twenty-one different segments of Maine’s budget and concluded, “Compared to other rural states, Maine does not appear to have higher-than-normal costs in this (natural resources) state service category.”
I know the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife best, so let me offer this bit of insight. IF&W is broken and neglected, and is unable to perform its mission. It’s asked to do too much with too little. Those who oppose consolidation do not defend the status quo. They demand that this critically important department be strengthened, not torn apart.
Four years ago IF&W was studied by the Management Assistance Team (MAT) of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Fifty-seven recommendations for improvement were submitted. Very few of these recommendations have been implemented, mostly due to lack of funding.
The Mat Report found that IF&W is a “virtual Mother Lode for the state, economically speaking.” On December 19, 2007, a new national study reported that “Maine’s 266,000 hunters and anglers are among the most prominent and influential of all demographic groups, spending more than $581 million a year on hunting and fishing.”
If IF&W, as a Cabinet-level department, could not attract the funding and support needed to stimulate such a critical part of Maine’s economy, how on earth is it going to fare as a bureau within a large natural resource agency?
We know the answer and it comes from super agencies all across the country.
Researching outdoor issues in Montana a few years ago, as part of a media fellowship from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, I stumbled on a book titled “Incentives and Conservation” edited by Daniel K. Benjamin. The book includes a chapter titled “Bureaucratic Organization and Wildlife Management” by Dominic Parker, a PERC research associate. Parker looked at a lot of the research on natural resource agency mergers and reached some important conclusions.
Maine has bucked the trend. Only nineteen states had freestanding wildlife agencies in 2000 compared to forty-four in 1934. In 2000, twenty-one wildlife agencies were part of larger natural resource departments, five were part of environmental protection departments, and eight wildlife agencies also had jurisdiction over forestry or state parks.
Here are some of Parker’s conclusions.
“The integration of a wildlife agency within a larger agency appears to have decreased wildlife agency revenue. Although such integration has increased the emphasis the agency places on nongame management, overall agency spending on nongame has not generally increased.”
Parker also concluded that “wildlife agencies that are not designed to produce well-defined products for well-defined constituencies have had trouble generating revenue.”
One consequence of these mergers is that constituencies like sportsmen or commercial fishermen have been reluctant to continue funding their agencies after the agencies are swallowed up by larger departments, and no one else has stepped forward to pick up the slack.
Parker also reported that “a large natural resource agency seems to promote the interdisciplinary cooperation needed for holistic management, but comes at the expense of specialized management that constituencies value.”
In other words there is little to gain and a lot to lose if IF&W is merged into a super agency, especially for sportsmen.
My hope is that, for the third time, the legislature will vote to maintain the integrity and independence of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and our other natural resource agencies..
But sportsmen are not surprised by this latest move by the governor. In his FY 04 and 05 budgets he proposed to cut $5 million from IF&W’s budget, eliminate forty-six positions, close a hatchery, appropriate absolutely no tax dollars, and increase every single license issued by the department by $6.
It’s time to recognize the critical role this department plays in Maine’s economy and heritage, and give it the funding and modern tools it needs to serve what is now widely recognized as our state’s principle asset: our quality of place.
Instead of using his chain saw to cut up the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the governor ought to take up his hammer and build a better department.
In his new merger proposal, the Governor asks the legislature to create a working group of key members of his administration and require the group to achieve savings of $1,250,000 during the fiscal year 2010-11 from the four natural resource agencies. His proposal basically rehashes his first two merger proposals, without mentioning a merger. He specifically asks that the working group implement the recommendations of the Governor’s Natural Resource Agency Task Force. He’s dressed the merger up in different clothes, but it’s still a merger.
One major problem the governor faces with his latest proposal is this: Consolidation costs money. If nothing else, we’ve learned this from school consolidation. As one Democratic legislative leader told me, “We were bamboozled” on school consolidation.
This is why any new consolidation plan proposed by the governor is met with great skepticism at the legislature. His proposal fails to account for any of the costs of merging functions and agencies.
Many legislators also doubt that bigger is better, that super agencies are more efficient and best positioned to make the quick changes required in this new world economy. Need I direct your attention to the humongous Department of Health and Human Services?
These are the very arguments that divided the thirty-eight-member Natural Resource Agency Task Force that ended six months of tedious work on December 7, 2008, with no reorganization plan for the Departments of Agriculture, Conservation, Environmental Protection, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Marine Resources.
I was among the thirty-eight who labored through six long meetings and a two-day retreat to meet our legislative mandate to “consider all ideas and organizational configurations, eliminate duplication and create greater efficiencies to improve the delivery of services to the citizens of the State of Maine associated with the natural resources sector.”
I argued strenuously for small mission-focused agencies, offering excellent customer service, able to react quickly to trends and new demands, and accountable for their work and decisions.
Eight relatively minor recommendations were listed in the final report. These included a recommendation that all marketing programs be moved to the Department of Economic and Community Development, all boating programs be consolidated in a single agency, regional offices of the five agencies be co-located, and a single Web site portal be created for all of the state’s licenses, permits, and registrations.
These are the recommendations targeted in the governor’s latest proposal. But even these recommendations are unlikely to be adopted this legislative session because most of them will be expensive and some have been tried before. The single Web site portal for all licenses, permits, and registrations was estimated to cost more than $4 million.
The costs of consolidation were brought home to me when Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe reported that the cost of merging the relatively small Atlantic Salmon Commission into DMR was $100,000.
The challenge is much greater than a simple reorganization. Little will be accomplished by moving functions around in state government if we are unable to change the culture and attitudes of those who serve in these agencies, focusing them on customer service and economic growth.
Creating accountability for the decisions and policies of these agencies is a critically important step toward re-establishing the public’s confidence in state government. We must find new ways for the agencies to engage the public and establish methods of tracking and reporting the results of each agency’s decisions and policies.
We need lean natural resource agencies that anticipate change, recognize economic opportunities, and constantly reposition themselves to serve the needs of Maine’s economy and people.
Governor Baldacci’s latest merger proposal would move us in the wrong direction. And it is unlikely to find much traction from a legislature that soundly rejected his two previous merger proposals.