Should Md. get rid of separate agency?


January 25, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- Bob Walker could lose his job.

But he doesn't seem too upset about the prospect of being unemployed. It's Maryland's farmers that he's worried about, along with a lot of other people he fears may suffer if the state departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources are merged.

Mr. Walker, secretary of agriculture, feels that the merger -- which would make Maryland the only state in the nation without an agriculture department -- would severely hurt Maryland's agricultural economy.

"It sends the wrong message at the wrong time," he says of the proposal by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., which is to be considered during the 90-day session of the General Assembly that began Jan. 13.

"It sends the message to farmers and the food industry that 'you're not that important, that the state is not that interested in your farms or your businesses.' "

Agriculture is big business in Maryland, Mr. Walker says, bigger than most people realize. "Farmers take in almost $1.5 billion a year, and most of that is in rural areas."

The broader industry -- one that he calls food and fiber, which includes food processors, grocers and the like -- is the state's largest, representing about $11 billion a year in sales, he says.

Mr. Mitchell, an Eastern Shore Democrat, suggested the merger in early September as part of a broader plan to reduce the size of state government and help balance the budget.

"I don't want to appear self-serving or sound critical of the Speaker," Mr. Walker says. "I respect Clay and I understand his interests in trying to help solve the state's financial problems. But this would be a major policy mistake.

"I'm not sure that a bigger bureaucracy will be any more efficient or cheaper," Mr. Walker says. "I'm not sure a bigger bureaucracy will be as responsive to the needs of the people it is intended to serve."

Robert L. Walker grew up in Baltimore near Lake Montebello. He laughs about having never owned a tractor, but is quick to tell you that he has milked a cow. He says that as a child he tried his hand at shucking corn and pulling beans when visiting his grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia.

Mr. Walker, 44, is a graduate of City College and Towson State University, where he majored in political science.

He is a past president of the Baltimore City School Board. His career in agriculture began on the food processing side of the industry as an executive with Esskay, an old-line, Baltimore company best known for its hot dogs, hams and lunch meat.

He was named agriculture secretary in November 1991 after serving as deputy secretary under Wayne A. Cawley Jr. for 4 1/2 years.

While admitting that he has never been a farmer, Mr. Walker believes this does not hinder his understanding of problems that farmers face as they produce their crops and try to earn a profit.

Posting a profit is not mandatory for state government, but the law requires that it at least break even. This is becoming more difficult as the recession takes its toll on Maryland's economic health.

William R. Miles, legislative assistant to Mr. Mitchell, said the House is committed to restructuring state government in an effort to solve Maryland's financial problems. Mr. Miles said he anticipates opposition to the speaker's proposal from the governor's office and other sources, but insisted that the plan would be "vigorously pushed" in the legislative session.

Mr. Miles said the goal of the speaker's overall plan is to reduce spending from tax-generated general funds by 20 percent.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer doesn't like the part of the plan that applies to the agriculture department. His view is that farming is vital to the state's economy and it deserves its own agency, says Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Ms. Boinest said the governor is not convinced that any great savings would result from the merger. "He feels that farmers would be short- shrifted if you dismantle the agency set up to help them."

The so-called Butta Commission is also opposed to the merger. Headed by J. Henry Butta, the retired chief executive of C&P Telephone Co., the commission was established in 1991 to study efficiency in state government.

The commission's final report, due out later this week, says there is no reason for the merger. According to sources familiar with the report, it states that each department has distinctive and important missions and they should be maintained. It concludes that there are no indications that a larger agency will be more efficient and would likely be less responsive.

Mr. Cawley, who has retired to his farm outside of Denton, insists that a consolidation would result in an "economic disaster."

He feels it would cost taxpayers more in the long run and hurt the state's No. 1 industry.

There is also opposition from the 14,000-member Maryland Farm DTC Bureau. C. William Knill, president of the agriculture organization, says farmers don't like the proposal and are hoping it will be reconsidered.

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