The Idaho Soil Conservation Commission is one step closer to elimination after legislators met last week to move forward with proposals which would abolish the commission and create a new Office of Soil and Water Conservation, which would report directly to the office of Gov. Butch Otter.
The commission is tasked with providing technical support to Idaho’s 51 conservation districts, as well as administering low-interest loan programs that allow Idaho’s farmers and ranchers access to cheap money for conservation upgrades of their property. The commission, which employs 21 staffers, has a budget of $3.9 million for fiscal year 2010, though it has cut approximately $296,000 from that amount due to holdbacks ordered by Otter last year.
The Soil Conservation Interim Committee, headed by Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, and Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, had previously debated a plan that would have eliminated the commission and created a new Division of Resource Conservation within the Idaho Department of Agriculture. The staffing levels and budget of the new division would have been determined by the administrator for the Department of Agriculture. The committee, during the December meeting, estimated the state would save approximately $1.3 million by making the switch and eliminating 8 staff positions.
The new plan, however, would place the Office of Soil and Water Conservation directly under Gov. Otter. That would allow Otter, as he does with other departments under his direction, to determine an appropriate staffing level and budget for the new office. It is believed reduced staffing levels of the former plan, which are determined by budgetary constraints, would remain in the new bill.
Bonnie Butler, speaking on behalf of the governor, said Otter is not supportive of the idea because he can’t see the savings and his office is not adequately staffed to handle the new department.
The elimination of the old agency and creation of the new office is intended to increase overall accountability within the state entity. The commission is unlike any other state commission in that it reports to the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee and the Division of Financial Management and no other departments. Under the new proposal, the office would be required to report to the Senate and House Agricultural Affairs committees before Feb. 1 each year.
Like the former proposal, the new draft legislation would create an advisory board of five people, each of whom would be appointed and removed by the governor. The proposal would ask the governor to take into account geographic representation when choosing board members, but would not require it. Individual districts would be allowed to submit names of people from their districts for consideration by the governor, but again, Otter would be allowed to ignore the requests.
Under the new proposal, individual districts would also receive more money for operational funding. Each of Idaho’s conservation districts receives $5,000 to fund its activities throughout the year. The new proposal increases that amount to $8,500, which is also up from the former proposal, which upped the amount districts would receive to $7,500. Districts also receive money from federal sources as well counties throughout the state.
With the governor not interested in adding the commission to his office, the interim committee will continue to meet to find an acceptable resolution for all sides. In an interview with IdahoReporter.com, Roberts said the committee may have to go back to the drawing board to find compromises from each party involved.