The Idaho Soil Conservation Commission could be folded into a new Division of Resource Conservation, under a proposal heard today by the Soil Conservation Commission Interim Committee.

The Division of Resource Conservation would replace the commission and take over all its duties, which includes overseeing and providing technical support to Idaho’s fifty-one conservation districts and administering low-interest loan programs for ranchers and farmers.  The new division would operate as a part of the Idaho Department of Agriculture and would be accountable to the director of that department.  The new division would be similar to the commission in that it would have no regulatory powers.  The commission currently answers to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the Division of Financial Management.

Lewistown Republican Senator Joe Stegner, one of the co-chairmen of the committee, believes the legislation would straighten out the accountability of the commission. “There is an odd entity created… with no particular accountability.”  Stegner wants to give the provide the state government “a smooth way to manage that entity,” and “give the department control over spending and employees” of the new division.

The budget for the commission come directly from the General Fund, which is also used to fund education, law enforcement, and many other services in Idaho. The commission was given approximately $3.9 million for fiscal year 2010, but has cut $296,000 from their budget due to holdbacks ordered earlier in the year by Governor Butch Otter.

Under the proposed changes, the new division would draw its funds from the Department of Ag instead of the General Fund. The legislation discussed does not lay out specific guidelines as to what the new division would receive from the Dept. of Ag in terms of actual dollar amounts.

The chairman of the commission, J. Morgan Evans, believes the realignment would detrimental to conservation efforts in Idaho. He believes that if the Dept. of Ag, which is an agency that has regulatory power, takes over the comission, which doesn’t have regulatory power, “a lot of farmers and ranchers won’t work with a regulatory agency,” and that “they’ll lose a lot of participation and support.”

Evans is also concerned the transition could devastate the commission’s employees.  If the commission is eliminated, all employees would be let go and would not automatically transition to the new division.  It would then be the duty of the director of the Dept. of Ag to hire staff for the new division.

“Staffers with twenty years of experience would be treated the same as new employees,” said Evans. “I think that’s pretty cold.”

The draft legislation also makes other changes to the conservation program in Idaho. The fifty-one districts receive $5,000 from the commission to fund their operations. Under the proposed changes, the districts would receive an additional $2,500, which would bring the total to $7,500. Districts also receive money from counties throughout the state.

The legislation would also create the Resource Conservation Advisory Board, which would consist of seven representatives from the state. Each district would submit up to three names per vacancy and the director for the Department of Agriculture would select from the names to fill six of the slots on the board. The seventh slot would be filled by an administrator from the Division of Resource Conservation. The purpose of the board would be to maintain close contact between the division and the districts.

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