It appears that the long awaited "bold reform" in Michigan government is merely combining state departments. The proposed recombining of the Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality would save little money — a few hundred thousand dollars at most in the face of a state overspending crisis that could top $2 billion. More important, however, it would not remedy the two major structural problems at the root of state environmental and natural resource programs' poor performance: the obstructionist state regulatory bureaucracy.
For some readers, perhaps a little history is in order. Under the direction of Gov. John Engler in 1995, I helped write the executive order that separated the environmental regulatory programs housed in the DNR, and subsequently was director of the newly formed DEQ. The purpose of creating the DEQ was to house environmental regulatory programs in one agency, thereby creating a "one stop shop" for businesses and individuals requiring environmental permits. The combined agency was not popular with sportsmen, who always suspected some of their hunting and fishing license fees were being diverted from wildlife and fisheries conservation to environmental programs.
A recombination of the two agencies will only add another administrative layer to an already cumbersome bureaucracy that has earned Michigan the reputation of being a regulatory quagmire for businesses and individuals attempting to undertake any activity that requires an environmental permit.
Instead of merely rearranging the deck chairs by folding the DEQ back into the DNR, elected officials should have the courage and vision to undertake real structural reform. One way to accomplish this goal would be to create a single agency responsible for environmental and other types of permitting and licensing.
The establishment of such an agency would send a clear signal the state was becoming more business friendly. The culture of a regulatory agency that is accountable to the governor and Legislature would be much different than in the current DEQ, where little incentive exists to issue permits in a timely manner. Current DEQ culture seems to favor deferring decisions or requiring more and more additional information to ensure there is zero risk to the environment. New hires would not be needed as existing employees with regulatory duties could be transferred to the new agency.
The recommended solution to the second institutional obstacle cited above is the elimination of several environmental programs, including:
- The program that provides assistance to business in understanding environmental laws is no longer necessary. This program may have served a useful purpose when the federal government was passing new environmental laws in the 1990s, but very few environmental laws have changed during the last few years.
- The Superfund program is primarily a federal program and most of the sites in Michigan have been addressed. DEQ no longer needs a unit to duplicate federal activity.
- The groundwater discharge program should be eliminated and replaced with over-the-counter general permits. There is no federal requirement for this program and it has not functioned well for some time.
- Landfill regulation should be turned over to local government. Landfills are local facilities and do not need state inspection.
- Return the wetland program to federal government (Gov. Jennifer Granholm called for this in her 2009 State of the State address).
- Substantially reduce the size of the state brownfield redevelopment program, which has become more of an obstacle than an asset.
Eliminating these programs would save taxpayers millions of dollars. More important, however, state government must be streamlined so it is a benefit rather than an impediment to doing business in the state. Without real structural reform and elimination of unneeded state government programs, it is next to impossible for the state to experience new job growth. Simply rearranging the deck chairs of government is not good enough. Our elected officials need to do better.
Russ Harding is senior environmental analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.