Consolidating 'Green' Departments

More leaders are trying to cut costs by merging environmental agencies. Critics worry this will water down the impact of environmental protection.

As state budget pressures continue to mount, more and more leaders are trying to cut costs by consolidating agencies -- and that includes environmental departments. In inaugural speeches, State of the State addresses and budget proposals this spring, no fewer than 15 governors proposed combining two or more departments in the areas of natural resources, interior, parks, wildlife, environmental protection and energy.

"A lot of [governors] are taking a top-to-bottom look at government," says Sue Gander, director of the Environment, Energy & Transportation Division in the National Governors Association. That may mean consolidating environmental agencies.

In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy is planning to merge the departments of Environmental Protection and Public Utility Control. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley is considering merging the state departments of Natural Resources and Environment. And in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, state officials are working to merge their wildlife and parks programs in an effort to save money and streamline services.

Some critics worry that all this eco-consolidation may water down the impact of state environmental protection agencies. In Florida, for example, Gov. Rick Scott has considered creating a Department of Growth Leadership, an agency that would value job creation and economic development as being just as important as clean air and water.

And it may not even save that much money. A state’s parks and wildlife program, says Gander, "is not a place where a lot of money is to be had." In Colorado, a merger of the wildlife and parks agencies may only save the state $3 million to $4 million a year. In Washington, the merger is estimated to save $2.5 million in the second year. In a state facing a $2.5 billion budget gap, $2.5 million isn’t much money. That’s partly why the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission (WFWC) is opposing the merger. "The cost savings identified in the bill are relatively small in light of the substantial reorganizational effort that a merger would entail," the commission said in a statement released in February.

Conservation groups like the WFWC and the Colorado Wildlife Federation have a litany of concerns and objections to the proposed mergers, mostly involving the impact it will have on wildlife management and how hunters’ and anglers’ license fees are spent. The concerns are not unfounded. In 1963, the Colorado Division of Games, Fish and Parks merged with the State Parks department. The union lasted a mere nine years before the agencies were split again in 1972 because hunters and anglers were worried that money from hunting and fishing was being spent on parks. Keeping parks and wildlife funds separate is one of the main challenges facing the mergers this time around too. Much of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s $110 million budget comes from hunting and fishing license revenue and fees. About $20 million of that are federal dollars generated by taxes on ammunition and on hunting and fishing equipment. If the money is used for anything other than fish and wildlife management, the state could lose that funding.

For that reason, not every state is following the consolidation trend: Michigan is abolishing its Department of Natural Resources and Environment just 18 months after it was created. After determining that their core missions were too disparate and vast to be run under one agency, Gov. Rick Snyder re-established the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in March. "Michigan is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and we need to be a leader and innovator in protecting these resources," Snyder said in signing the executive order to split the single agency. "Separating the DEQ and DNR means we can better address these key priorities." The two agencies had been pulled apart once before -- in 1995 under Gov. John Engler.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.