Vol. 10, No. 50

December 12-18, 2002

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In Annapolis, Environmental Agencies Deserve a Closer Look

More than a month before he takes office, Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich is brewing up a holiday punch for conservationists. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of punch you drink. It could be a sucker punch.

His new administration is considering a transition-team proposal to merge the two state agencies overseeing Maryland’s land, water and air, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment.

The rationale — to save money — has merit. Advisors are estimating that combining the agencies could cut $30 million in a state budget that needs to be tightened by well over a billion in the next year and a half.

But will it save money?

The agencies won’t fit back together again — they were divided a decade ago — seamlessly or cheaply. Change is always costly, and bureaucracies burn money the way a fireplace burns wood on a cold December night.

But what really worries us is that it’s environmental departments that are first called to accounting.

Perhaps no issue in Ehrlich’s past gave voters more pause than his environmental record. His voting record on conservation was the worst of any Maryland member of Congress, bar none.

But many Maryland voters took Ehrlich at his word when he insisted that he was, in fact, a moderate politician — despite what the black-and-white record showed.

Since Nov. 5, advocacy groups have said they look forward to working with the new governor and seeing him practice the love for Chesapeake Bay that he has proclaimed.

That’s not what we see in this 30-Day Wonder Remedy for our state’s environmental watchdogs.

Marylanders need better evidence before they accept a proposal so extreme. And that is much more than a few weeks of casual study by an ad hoc committee of volunteers.

We might at some point support consolidations in the state government. But it’s too early to take out the meat cleaver, especially when dealing with vital agencies that protect not just air, land and water but public health.

The prospect of fewer workers checking drinking water for impurities and less enforcement of laws preventing Bay dumping are just two of many cuts that could be forced by this plan.

Another reason for our concern is that the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources deserve better. Natural Resources, in particular, has for years been a troubled department with morale keeping pace with the incredible shrinking man. Scientists there would be crying out — if they dared — for the right to do their jobs, informing policy by what they find in the field. That’s not the way it’s been.

As one observer said, “You can’t manage natural resources based on four-year political agendas.” Nor, we think, on the 30-Day Plan.

Lt. Gov.-elect Michael Steele said that Ehrlich is “comfortable” with the consolidation but that the final decision hasn’t been made.

Thank heavens. In his campaign to persuade voters that he wasn’t what he seemed, Ehrlich endorsed Smart Growth in Maryland. Now we also need to see him practice Smart Shrinking.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly