With the growing concern over environmental issues at both the federal and state level, the proposal by Gov. Norm Bangerter to create a Utah Department of Environmental Quality has much to recommend it.
Under the plan, the current Division of Environmental Health would be removed from the state Health Department and elevated to the equivalent of a state Cabinet office, with more direct access to the governor, a shorter funding pipeline, plus more status and clout.Bangerter caught the Legislature by surprise last January when he made the proposal. Like most new ideas, the plan did not fly immediately but was referred to an ad hoc committee for more study. That's almost always a wise approach. The failure to act does not mean the idea is opposed by lawmakers.
However, the spadework has now been completed and the Legislature's Health Interim Committee this week endorsed establishment of the new department and a majority voted to support such a bill when lawmakers meet in January.
There are some drawbacks. Forming a new department can be viewed as an expansion of the state bureaucracy, although in practice, most of the employees for the agency already are in the Division of Environmental Health and simply would find themselves working for an entity with a different name.
Health Department officials object to the change on the grounds that air quality is a health concern and those concerns could get lost or down-played if the issue becomes centered in a new department.
And they say there could be administrative problems in trying to coordinate between two separate departments that share some environmental interests. A duplication of some services might occur.
Of course, any agency hates to see a significant part of its turf carved away since that may cause budgetary problems and lead to a lesser role in the inner councils of government.
Yet environmental issues have grown steadily beyond health concerns. With increasingly complex rules being handed down from Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency, the question of air quality has come to have major economic ramifications as well.
Environmental concerns are so numerous that in many respects the governor already treats the agency as if it were a major state department. The expanded status would give air-quality people more clout in state government and streamline funding.
For example, environmental concerns currently are part of the Health Department budget, just one of many programs that the department must assemble in its annual financial request.
Coming from an independent Department of Environmental Quality, the agency's funding requests would stand alone and have more focus, instead of being part of a larger, unrelated package. This would allow more clear-cut emphasis on environmental issues.
The proposed change also could improve coordination between the state and local environmental agencies.
The advantages of establishing a state Department of Environmental Quality outweigh the drawbacks. The 1991 Legislature ought to approve the change.