Gov. Chris Gregoire would take on more authority over recreation and environmental preservation under a proposal she laid out today to consolidate state agencies.
Two agencies run by independent commissions, the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission, will merge and move under the governor’s direct control if the Legislature signs off.
It’s part of a plan that would reduce the state bureaucracy by 12 agencies.
Gregoire said the consolidation would streamline government while making a modest, $30 million dent in a two-year budget shortfall of more than $4 billion.
“It simply can’t be about cutting,” Gregoire told reporters. “It’s got to be about changing; just like the private sector is changing, personal families are changing to come out of this recession.”
Recreation is the target of the most significant changes, and more could come today when Gregoire unveils her 2009-2011 budget proposal to the Legislature. Parks officials and advocates are waiting to see if and how Gregoire proposes moving parks away from general taxpayer funding toward user fees on recreationalists.
The governor now wields only indirect authority over the parks and wildlife agencies by appointing their boards, which hire and fire the agencies’ directors.
Under the reorganization Gregoire outlined Tuesday, the governor would appoint the directors. The commissions would survive but would be stripped of their regulatory authority, becoming citizen advisory boards that would continue to provide a voice for academics, fishermen, hunters, hikers and the like.
Any reorganization of the state’s organizational chart is bound to be contentious, and mergers of natural resource agencies have been tried before without success.
But this one has new allies, starting with Gregoire, who opposed some previous ideas for mergers. It was developed with input from the interest groups and policymakers represented on her Transforming Washington’s Budget committee. One member, Republican Rep. Gary Alexander, called the consolidation plan “a positive step in the right direction.”
Her budget process has been inclusive, said Mo McBroom, policy director for the Washington Environmental Council.
“I think she has gone about this in a very smart way that is probably defusing some of the concern that might otherwise arise from some quarters,” McBroom said.
Parks Commission Chairman Fred Olson, who also served on the budget panel, spoke favorably of the recreation-agencies merger, saying it deserved a serious look.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for the current structure, but you know what? It’s not the only way to do business,” said Olson, of Olympia. “Having more direct control over these agencies by a governor also makes a lot of sense.”
Olson noted he was speaking only for himself, not the commission, and indeed, at least one other member had a cooler initial reception.
Pat Lantz said she’s not taking any position yet, and she likes Gregoire’s pitch better than legislation proposed unsuccessfully last winter to merge natural resource agencies under the commissioner of public lands. But she said the commission form of governance works.
“Parks has a very long and proud history of being an independent agency,” said Lantz, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Gig Harbor. It’s “100 percent geared to provide a service to the public. It isn’t a mixed-up message at all: It’s parks and recreation.”
Under Gregoire’s plan, a new Department of Conservation and Recreation would merge Fish and Wildlife, Parks and the small Recreation and Conservation Office, along with the even smaller law enforcement unit in the Department of Natural Resources.
DNR’s elected head, Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, hasn’t taken a position on the proposed reorganization, which would also move the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation into his agency. Other agencies would move under the departments of Ecology or Agriculture.
“He’d applaud the governor for putting a big, bold proposal on the table,” said Aaron Toso, Goldmark’s spokesman.
The proposed consolidation would cut 125 state jobs, most of them from the agencies that manage the state’s property, computer networks, printing, budgeting and personnel.
Gregoire wants many of those back-office, or “enterprise,” functions combined in a Department of Enterprise Services. The new agency would consolidate the departments of General Administration and Personnel and the State Printer, along with portions of the Department of Information Services and the governor’s budget office.
The idea is for the new agency to take over some of the back-office work being done by agencies around state government. Some lawmakers see services such as printing as better off privatized. Gregoire promised the new enterprise agency would operate on a “private sector model.”
The agency would be told: “You’ve got to compete. You’ve got to deliver the services. You can’t just bill us,” she said. The enterprise merger would provide the most savings, followed by proposed elimination of 36 boards and commissions.
Some of the smallest agencies, the ones that deal with civil rights of minorities, would be among those to disappear.
Gregoire said the agencies can’t handle more cuts and that to survive, they must be combined into one Office of Civil Rights. The Human Rights Commission, Commission on African American Affairs, Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise would be eliminated.