The Department of Environmental Quality is requesting fee increases for air quality and solid waste permitting programs. The Legislature should not grant the agency’s request without requiring that the DEQ change the way it does business. A fee increase to obtain an air permit or dispose of trash is just another name for a tax increase. DEQ officials argue that the cost impact on a per capita basis is minimal, but for a large business or utility the costs can be substantial. This is not a good time to raise the cost of doing business in the state with an unemployment rate that is still north of 10 percent.
There has been a trend in recent years for legislators to replace general fund monies with fees in DEQ budget deliberations. That approach helps legislators balance the books while keeping the agency operating, but does not drive innovation in the way the DEQ delivers service to its customers. As a prerequisite to considering fees increase the Legislature should require an independent, outside evaluation to determine if there are viable alternatives to simply granting money to the agency to hire employees to run environmental programs. Other states have had success with contracting services to private firms to prepare air permits, which avoids the need to hire additional state employees who are very costly to the tax payer in the long run. In some states landfill inspections are conducted by local government officials rather than state environmental agency personnel.
Michigan simply cannot afford to do business the same way it has always operated. Unfortunately, innovation in state agencies is all too rare, especially if that innovation requires a smaller state work force. It is up to elected officials to force that innovation. Tax or fee increases raise the cost for businesses to operate in the state and are especially difficult to justify if the state agency is not providing the most efficient service possible at the lowest cost.