Cultivating a bigger bureaucracy

February 11, 1993

Economies of scale can be deceiving, especially when you're talking about government bureaucracy. That's the case with House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell's plan to merge the Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment to cut state spending.

Too many diverse programs, with conflicting priorities, make for a management nightmare. Environmental regulators sharing offices with managers of state lands and waters and with promoters of intensive land productivity -- it's hard to imagine a worse mix of competing interests.

"The potential for conflicts is substantial," concludes the Butta commission on efficiency in government. "Consolidation of these departments could result in a new agency without a clear focus."

Granted, the merger could produce annual savings of $1.9 million, the commission calculates. But relocation and restructuring costs would erode that figure. The task force predicts the resulting potpourri would require a new layer of regional management -- with higher costs.

The Department of Environment was created in 1987 to focus on regulation that was divided between the natural resources and health departments. While DOE's effectiveness has been questioned, combining it with another agency would not enhance prospects for better enforcement.

Another disturbing aspect of the merger plan would be the devaluation of agriculture's status. In recent years, the agriculture department has been racked by serious staff reductions and budget cuts that caused Secretary Wayne A. Cawley to quit.

Farmers have been hit by an unending parade of new fees for services formerly provided free. The state has temporarily abandoned much of its farmland preservation program, raiding the fund to balance the budget. In the face of these problems, agriculture -- a $1.5 billion industry -- requires a separate, clear voice.

Agriculture's needs must be weighed against other competing demands, as in programs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, where farmers are charged with being the biggest polluters. Farmers must do their part, but their concerns should not be summarily subordinated to those of other sectors, as they would within a super-department.

Mr. Mitchell's proposal invites more bureaucracy, not less. A better approach would be creating a commission to map out a new state governmental structure for the 21st century, one that would be streamlined, efficient and less costly. Simply merging a few departments might prove counter-productive.

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