Farmers protest agencies' merger Bill calls for budget reduction of 20%

February 10, 1993|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

In a journey that was part protest and part field trip, about 20 Carroll County farmers traveled to Annapolis yesterday to show their opposition to a bill that would merge the state Department of Agriculture with the Department of Natural Resources.

The bill, one of three proposals submitted by House of Delegates Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell to reduce state government, calls for merging the two departments into a Department of Land and Water Resources and cutting the combined budget by 20 percent.

More than 200 farmers and environmentalists from across the state overflowed the joint hearing room, with many standing in the hallways and sitting on stairs in the aisles.

The northern Eastern Shore delegate defended his proposal.

"Now I know what a harpoon party feels like," Mr. Mitchell said.

Carroll County Farm Bureau president Gary Brauning II said he was pleased with the statewide turnout. Farmers had worried that the threat of avian influenza on the Eastern Shore and the overwhelming opposition to the bill would discourage agriculture groups from coming to the hearing.

"This is what we had hoped for," Mr. Brauning said. "The more people, the better the coverage."

John Butler, field services director for the Maryland Farm Bureau, also said he was happy with the support.

More than 200 Farm Bureau members arrived in Annapolis to oppose the bill, he said.

But some farmers are concerned that the measure will pass despite the opposition, simply because of allegiances to the speaker.

"[The delegates] may tell you one thing and vote quite differently," said New Windsor grain farmer Melvin Baile Jr.

Farmers said they feel the proposal will hurt the Department of Agriculture, which has been severely cut in the past two years.

Not only will agriculture be swallowed up by a department three times its size, but it will absorb more of the budget cuts, they said.

Secretary of Agriculture Robert Walker said during his testimony yesterday that the Department of Agriculture has cut its budget by 29 percent since 1991, a higher percentage than in any other agency.

The department also prides itself on returning money to the government every year.

"MDA is a small, mission-focused, no-frills, no-car-phone agency," Mr. Walker said.

"I applaud the efforts of the speaker to downsize and restructure government," he said. "But this bill is not evidently in the state's best interest.

"This bill would relegate farmers to second-class citizens and sends the wrong message at the wrong time."

Carroll County farmers said they agree.

"To target a small, efficient department like MDA is very unfair," said Mr. Baile. "I'd have no problem with the two departments merging, if DNR down-scaled to the size of MDA. But that would never happen."

Mr. Baile said people should know that the Department of Agriculture benefits all Maryland citizens.

"This issue is coming out as a farm issue," he said. "But a large portion of the budget is consumer protection with weights and measures.

"The farm committees were there in numbers, and numbers talk," he added. "But I didn't see any of the consumer groups there."

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