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ACF merger approved 11-2 in committee

ACF cropped
Some in the State House were predicting a 6-6 vote Wednesday, but the ACF merger bill (LD 837) as amended was approved by an 11-2 margin, with only Rep. Peter S. Kent (D-Woolwich) and Rep. Brian L. Jones (D-Freedom) voting no.
“We were happy the vote showed such a high level of acceptance,” Executive Director Patrick Strauch said, “but there’s still a long way to go.”

The final version of the amendment by Rep. Jeffrey L. Timberlake (R-Turner), including changes hammered out at Wednesday’s work session, is being drafted and will be available for the committee to review Tuesday, analyst Christopher Spruce said Friday afternoon.
The amendment maintains the basic four-bureau structure recommended earlier by the Natural Resource Network proposal.

That doesn’t mean that Wednesday’s work session went quickly or smoothly. Committee members quickly got hung up on the qualifications for ACF commissioner. Early on, Rep. Donald G. Marean (R-Hollis) introduced an amendment at the request of the Maine Farm Bureau that would have emphasized agricultural production experience, but not forestry or natural resources.

“That kind of takes us a step to where we were in the beginning,” said Rep. James F. Dill (D-Old Town), chair. “An agriculturist who then has experience in these other areas.”

“I think that’s exactly what they want,” Marean replied.

ACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb and others at Wednesday's work session.

Commissioner Walt Whitcomb and others who attended Wednesday’s work session.

That amendment gained no traction. But a “friendly” amendment by Rep.Craig V. Hickman (D-Winthrop) was included in the guiding principles concerning agriculture and his suggestion was added to the title of the agriculture bureau.Quite late in the thee-hour work session, the discussion took a 20-minute detour when Hickman asked ACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb to come up to the microphone and answer two sweeping questions: 1. How is this (the merger) going? 2. What are the initiatives in each department? Whitcomb answered that there are 45 “fairly well-distributed” initiatives and then provided details and further comments.

But the committee spent most of the hearing debating whether the commissioner should be a person of recognized executive ability who is qualified by training, knowledge OR (emphasis added) experience in agricultural production, forestry or natural resource management, or whether the word AND should be substituted for OR. Some thought very few candidates would be available if the word was AND. Others thought anyone who would run such a diverse department would need knowledge, training and experience  in all three major areas.

There was much talk about “splitting hairs,” but a straw poll taken about an hour into a debate seemed to settle the issue — 7 for OR, 4 for AND — and the draft of the amendment will read OR, Spruce said Friday. But the issue kept cropping up again, even when Spruce was running through the list of changes to the amendment just before the vote. Spruce told the committee they’d agreed to: Strike the emergency preamble, add a slightly amended version of the mission statement and guiding principles and slightly change the qualifications for commissioner.

At that point Spruce stopped to say, “I’m loathe to read through it again, in case we get hung up on AND and OR again.” He got a laugh from both the committee and the audience. Then Spruce went on, saying the amendment kept Sections 16, 17 and 18, but struck 19, the emergency clause and “any section related to potato marketing.”

“The vote in ACF was encouraging because I thought members were starting to understand the strength of creating a land based agency that can move Maine’s natural resources into a position of greater strength,” Strauch said. “NRCM and Audubon continue to be threatened by this alliance and lobby against it at every corner in the legislature. We expect a good debate on the issue as the bill works its way through the House and Senate and will seek you voices of support at the appropriate time.”

  • On Monday the Appropriations Committee voted on BETR and BETE and unanimously recommended three things:
  1. Reduce funding of BETR in the first fiscal year of the budget to 90 percent, so a decrease of 10 percent.
  2. Reduce reimbursement in the second fiscal year of the  budget to 80 percent, so a loss of 20 percent reimbursement.
  3. Require a thoughtful study of the BETR to BETE conversion with a report back to Appropriations.
  • The Environment and Natural Resources Committee worked on LD 1302, An Act To Amend the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act To Protect Water Quality. It will be worked again next Wednesday. Rep. Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan), the bill’s sponsor,  is very interested in pursuing some kind of amendment to the mining law that was passed last year. However, at this point we don’t know what his amendment will look like. We’ll be vigilant and present at the work session (1 p.m.,Cross Building, Room 216.)
  • The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee had a long day of testimony on more anti wind bills. MFPC testified against several, including LD 1325 and LD 1375. These bills essentially would change permitting rules midstream. They would set a terrible precedent for businesses in Maine that abide by one set of rules, only to have these rules changed.
  • The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee’s public hearing Friday on  LD 1474, An Act To Amend the Laws Pertaining to the Hunting of Bear, was held Friday and MFPC opposed the bill along with many others. After the hearing, the committee moved right into work session and voted unanimously to kill the bill. The U.S. Humane Society, which has been pushing the bill, has indicated it has a war chest of about $3 million and intends to pursue another citizen initiatve referendum. Stay tuned.
  • The UT municipal cost component bill (LD 1228) was heard in Taxation this week. It appears that expenses are in line with last year. Normally a straight forward process (that is dependant on landowner intervention at the county level of budget preparation), Wind Power TIFs were within the financial UT budget. Committee members separated these expenses out of the bill and are proposing a moratorium on UT TIFS until a study group  has been selected.
  • LD 1177 will be held over until next session with a task force of legislators and interested parties meeting over the summer to determine if there are some common sense solutions that can resolve the difficult issue of discontinued roads and associated liabilities.

All bills are to be cleared out of committee next week while at the same time the legislative council rules for a two-week public notice on hearings has been eliminated by leadership. Hold on to your hats as late bills come flying through the system and we send out panicked calls to action. We will keep you posted as the horse trading on the third floor commences.
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