THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, December 21, 2010 --
Three high-profile state agencies could be combined under a proposal released this week by Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s transition team that calls for the state departments of Transportation, Environmental Protection and Community Affairs to be merged.
The policy briefing recommends that Scott, who is preparing to take office next month, “refocus discrete components (of the agencies) as part of a newly created, more muscular state economic development agency.”
It also recommends the state get out of the business of overseeing local comprehensive planning following high profile fights in the Legislature in recent years over growth management restrictions lawmakers say are overly burdensome.
It would take legislation to combine the agencies and the transition team warned Scott that merging DCA with the other two large agencies wouldn’t necessarily make those problems go away, even as it recommended he push for the consolidation.
“When considering the many horror stories charging DCA as a bureaucratic inhibitor to growth, understand that DCA is carrying out the will of the law and its implementing rules,” the report said. “‘Blowing up’ DCA, as the Tallahassee insiders speculate is the focus of the incoming administration, will not solve the problem. The law must be changed.”
With so many water regulations coming from the federal government – several of which are being legally contested by the state - the transition also said that a standalone DEP was not necessary.
“Federal regulation is more extensive than it was 20-30 years ago when additive state regulation was created,” the report said. “Federal policy and rules ‘over-regulate’ Florida beyond a reasonable need, making the regulatory process more cumbersome and costly than competitive states.”
The rationale for eliminating the standalone DCA is similar: “Let cities be cities. Eliminate state oversight of local comprehensive planning,” the report said.
But transportation and environmental advocates questioned Tuesday whether the solution was combining the two very different transportation and environmental protection agencies, even as they acknowledged each could fit well with Community Affairs.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper told the News Service. “DEP has two primary purposes: make environmental regulations and be responsible under the constitution and state law for air and water quality. How do you put that together with planning for and financing the state highway system?”
“It’s probably more justified putting DOT and DCA closer together because the placement of roads dictates where you can develop, but there’s no explanation for taking the role of environmental protection and putting it with transportation planning,” Draper said.
Florida Transportation Builders Association president Bob Burleson agreed in the overall goal of making government more efficient, but said he would have to hear more about the proposal to decide whether he agreed with the details.
“I can agree with the duplicity of effort in permitting, but we’ve all got to remember these are requirements the Legislature put in place,” he said. “I don’t know that merging will eliminate the problem.”
However, Burleson said he would be willing to consider the proposal “as long as the (transportation) trust fund is left intact and we don’t have to take in” the other agencies.
Burleson cautioned that many DOT functions would have to stay in place, even if the agency is merged with others, because of the requirements for federal aid for road building.
“It may be one agency, but with somebody performing like the DOT secretary is performing now, somebody performing like the DEP secretary and somebody performing like the DCA secretary under them,” he said.
The most recent former chairman of the Florida Senate’s transportation and economic development budget committee, Sen. Mike Fasano, was similarly cautious about the proposal.
“I commend anyone, especially the governor-elect, going outside the box when they’re coming up with recommendations,” he said. “I’m a big believer that everything should be on the table in a year with such a huge budget deficit. Whether I fully support them, I don’t know until I hear more about what they’re proposing.”
Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he would be worried that some current oversight functions of the departments would suffer if they were placed together.
“When you start combining everything, someone is going to get swept under the rug,” he said. “Some part of the oversight is going to get overlooked. I’d like to hear how they are going to do it, how they are going to implement it and what kind of savings there will be.”
Draper recalled former Gov. Lawton Chiles merging the old departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Regulation, which he said “did not produce good government.”
“They took two relatively unrelated sets of activities and tried to put them together,” he said. “People who have ideas like ‘let’s just re-arrange the furniture should think about what the functions are.”
However, perhaps in anticipation of pushback like that, the Scott transition team defended the proposed merger, saying criticism was part of the normal way of doing business in Tallahassee – something Scott is hoping to end when he comes to power next month.
“Why do we always talk about regulatory reform but never make any progress?” the report said. “Because the system is too entrenched and politicians rarely have patience to understand it or take it on so we incremental-ize it and the frustration continue. The only way to do it right is to ‘restructure the company.’”