Opinion: Starving Peter to Feed Paul

Michael Catania | May 29, 2012 | Opinion
Proposed DEP budget continues policy of death by a thousand cuts

It is getting harder and harder to go a week these days without hearing about the administration’s latest plans to divert some significant source of funds intended to support a key state environmental program. If it isn’t raiding more than $200 million in clean energy funds, then it might plan to glom tens of millions of dollars intended to clean up old landfills or hazardous waste sites.

And all the while, DEP staffing levels continue to shrink, and the agency loses more and more experienced employees to retirements or just attrition. Watching this from the outside, it seems as if the agency is slowing being starved to death.

What is really going on here? The administration claims that it is simply making “tough decisions” that reflect difficult times as part of the governor’s self-proclaimed “Jersey Comeback.” But enviros and many other informed government watchers — including many in the regulated community — suspect that something else is afoot.

For all the administration’s propaganda to the contrary, what has gradually become clear is that an intentional and wholesale dismantling of the state’s nationally recognized environmental regulatory infrastructure is underway. With a vengeance. And while this appears to be just a part of a larger ideological effort to remake government, there is no doubt that DEP is now regarded as the red-headed stepchild by a governor with national political ambitions.

And this is not exactly a health-and-fitness regimen we are talking about, where a bloated bureaucracy is remade into a leaner, more efficient organization. It is more like watching the forces of Santa Anna surround the Alamo, where the outcome is inevitable.

Over the course of the past 40 years, DEP has grown like Topsy as governors and legislatures gave the agency ever-increasing responsibilities to address a wide range of public concerns — safe drinking water, solid, hazardous waste, and even radioactive sites to overdevelopment and sprawl, endangered species, and historic preservation. The rate of growth in programs, staff, and budget was meteoric, and managing this growth was one of the biggest challenges seen anywhere in government at any level. Clearly there is some room for improvement here, and a real need for innovative and inspirational management.

Few supporters or opponents of DEP would argue that the current financial crisis facing virtually every state government does not call for tough choices that will of necessity affect DEP, or that is would be inappropriate to figure out ways to retool the agency to make it more effective and efficient. But I cannot honestly say that the approach taken by the Christie administration even scratches the surface on the things that could and should be done along these lines.

Instead, Christie has invariably taken the easy way out in dealing with DEP. First, he has sought to demonize the agency and its mission in a way that no other governor — Republican or Democrat — has ever even considered, much less made into standard operating procedure. Starting with his scathing transition report on DEP, he has sought to portray the agency and its volumes of “overly burdensome” regulations as a job-killing problem, with the clear implication that a smaller DEP meant a smaller problem.

Next, the Governor has systematically isolated the agency from the federal EPA, as well as other states, through a series of policy reversals on climate change, clean energy, and regional air pollution that have left agency as the odd man out among its traditional allies.

Last but not least, by diverting funds and seeking to privatize a number of the agency’s regulatory functions, he has largely succeeded in not only demoralizing the staff, but also eviscerating many key DEP programs — all the while touting the agency’s improved “customer service.”

What the Governor has not done, however, is to make any real effort to consider and implement some very thoughtful recommendations of groups appointed by previous governors, like the Permit Efficiency Task Force, or the earlier Environmental Law Institute report on streamlining DEP permitting procedures. Nor has he bothered to empanel his own balanced group to develop new recommendations, or to spend time brainstorming how DEP might better regulate cross sector, or otherwise respond to changed circumstances in innovative ways. Instead, like an occupying army, he has chosen to transform the agency through ridicule, policy reversals, and impounding funds meant to support vital environmental programs. The approach has been all bullying, all the time.

The irony is that the governor is constantly complaining that the other two branches of government overstep their constitutional bounds and interfere with the proper balance of power. Yet he has no qualms whatsoever directing DEP to grant itself the authority to waive its own rules in the absence of legislative authority to do so, completely disregarding legislative intent on how funds should be spent, or loudly denigrating the judiciary when they disagree with his position or hold that he has overstepped his bounds.

In the short term, for reasons many of us cannot really fathom, it would appear that voters who remain afraid of taxes, unemployment, foreclosure, and a whole variety of woes that the governor likes to focus on may be buying his DEP as scapegoat approach. But I suspect that will not last for long, since these are the very same voters who have demanded for the last 40 plus years that governors and Legislatures — and yes, even the DEP — provide them and their children with clean air and clean water. So when the next round of environmental crises hits, as it most certainly will, it should be very interesting to see who gets blamed, and what the public demands of their government when push comes to shove.

One thing, however, is for certain: if you liked the way the old DEP with more staff and more funding handled your permit application or your complaint about an environmental problem, then you’re really just going to love how the new “DEP-lite” responds to your concerns. But that may be the real agenda, in order to further justify dismantling the agency.