ACF Committee reaffirms support for merger

Rep. James F. Dill, ACF co-chair
Rep. James F. Dill, ACF co-chair

Support for the ACF merger stood firm Wednesday, though it was certainly tested when Commissioner Walt Whitcomb told the ACF Committee that they needed to include five new positions in the amendment to LD 837.

“I’m having a hard time understanding how we can combine two departments and end up with more people,” Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, co-chair.

Wednesday’s work session could have just been a quick run-through of the changes to the LD 837 amendment that the committee approved 11-2 last week. But when Whitcomb began talking about new positions, he also unleashed a discussion of everything from the size of his office staff, to Di-Cap funding, to the reception a request for new positions would receive in Appropriations.

The five “new” positions, though, were mostly a difference of perspective. Two were inspector positions that had been proposed to be cut, but were reinstated. Two were the directors of the new bureaus, Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, and Resource, Information and Land Use Planning. The fifth was the director of the Land for Maine’s Future program, which is now directed by Deputy Commissioner Ed Meadows.

“You say we’ve created five extra positions, but in my mind we weren’t creating five extra positions,” said Rep. James F. Dill (D-Old Town), co-chair. “It was more taking what you have and shifting them around . . .  It was certainly not our intent to increase administration at all. We were, hopefully, trying to streamline administration and have fewer appointees.”

The commissioner conceded “it could be as simple” as saying the commissioner can designate a division director to become a bureau director.  “I’m not saying it’s not solvable,” he said. “I just want you (the committee) to solve it.”

Whitcomb’s initial merger plan would have concentrated supervision in the commissioner’s office. On Wednesday, committee members questioned him several times about the number of appointed positions in the department.

“There were concerns because the commissioner still seemed entrenched in a model of management that we and the committee had moved past,” said Executive Director Patrick Strauch.

The Natural Resource Network’s proposal advocated four bureaus – agriculture, forestry, parks and lands, and resource information and land use planning – centered on the department’s key responsibilities. Committee members, in fact, were still referring to the NRN organizational chart at Wednesday’s session. Sen. Jackson asked Whitcomb to provide an ACF chart next week.

“The NRN proposal seemed to have helped solidify the discussion,” Strauch said, “The committee adopted the framework and then adapted it to address their concerns and the concerns of those in the community.”

So despite the wide-ranging discussion Wednesday, the committee chairs, particularly Rep. Dill, managed to keep the amendment on track. The vote was again 11-2, with only Rep. Peter Kent (D-Woolwich) and Rep. Brian Jones (D-Freedom) voting no.

“I think the committee has been working hard on the bill and has reached a consensus that will carry it through the House and the Senate,” Strauch said. “There is still work to be done to make sure that happens and we will be watching and working.”

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