Investigative
11:30 am
Wed December 8, 2010

Rick Snyder wants to streamline regulation, but what does that mean?

Rick Snyder says the way government works in Michigan doesn’t work.

“Now government.  It’s time for bureaucracy to go away.  It’s been with us a hundred-plus years.  It doesn’t work.  It is time for a new model.  It is time for customer service government.  The role of government is to treat you, the citizen, as the customer and look at life through your eyes and say ‘How can we help you succeed and how can we get out of your way.’”

If that sounds somewhat familiar, you might have first heard it 30 years ago, during Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address.

 “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The Reagan approach was not only to reduce the red tape, but to deregulate.  It lifted some of the regulations that businesses saw as burdensome.

But others say those regulations required businesses to operate safely… that they kept products safe … they stopped businesses from taking advantage of people… and kept companies from polluting more.

Rick Snyder says streamlining regulations for Michigan won’t  be detrimental to the health and safety of the public or to the environment.

Pro-business groups insist they also want to keep protections in place, but they say the way it is now… Michigan’s regulatory red tape is hurting the state’s ability to compete.  Russ Harding is with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  He recently put out a study entitled “Environmental Regulation in Michigan: A Blueprint for Reform.”

“There’s hardly a week goes by that I don’t get calls from businesses that have given up on Michigan.”

During Republican Governor John Engler’s administration, Harding headed up the Department of Environmental Quality.  He says even then he had to keep his staff on a short leash, reviewing decisions they made and modifying them because they might hurt the businesses they were regulating.  He argues state regulatory agencies can make it difficult for businesses to expand and discourage other businesses from moving to Michigan because state bureaucrats never give them a break. 

“When you do everything the state requires you to do, you’re not done.  They leave it open.  And they can come back any time in the future and say, ‘Well, we found new standards,’ or ‘We’ve got new scientific information.  You’ve got to now go back and do more.’  Well, that, uh---  environmentalists may like that.  From the business community’s perspective, that’s a no-go.”

And Russ Harding’s observations are shared by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.  Doug Roberts, Junior is the Chamber’s Director of Environmental & Energy Policy.

 “We hear so much from all of our members that there’s key issues that are hurting Michigan and making it hard for us to have an economic recovery.  We know about high taxes, we hear about high labor costs, but certainly we hear a lot about this regulatory impediment, this bad regulatory environment we have.  And companies that tell us that “Geeze, we operate in Michigan and we operate in multiple states and  Michigan is one of the toughest places we do business in.  And we’ve got to find a way to change that culture so we’re a good place to do business in.”

But environmentalists and others want to make sure if there are changes to the regulatory system, they don’t dismantle the protections to people and the environment that have made Michigan a better place to live than some other states.  James Clift is with the Michigan Environmental Council

“I mean, bottom line is we’re usually trying to protect public health or the environment.  Sometimes it’s the health of workers.  Sometimes it’s the health of those neighboring residents.  Or we’re trying to protect the Great Lakes and our other natural environments.  So, I think people are supportive of that.  They just want to make sure they’re cost effective and they make sense.”

Generally speaking, Clift and other environmentalists don’t have a problem with the idea of making the state government permitting process more efficient.  Lisa Wozniak is with the non-partisan League of Conservation Voters.

She agrees with Governor-elect Snyder that there are some cumbersome processes in getting regulatory permits.  Cutting through the red tape would be good… the trick is making sure protecting the environment is not sacrificed in the name of creating a better business climate.

“We often find that environment is posited against economic growth.  And in a state like ours where we sit on almost 20% of the earth’s fresh surface water and are often referred to as a winter wonderland, it is incumbent upon us to see that these two things go hand-in-hand.”

So… how do you streamline regulations to make Michigan a better state in which to do business without sacrificing the regulations that protect the elderly in nursing homes… protect children in day care centers… and keep the water and air from being more polluted? Russ Harding at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has one idea.

“We ought to have a single permitting agency now whether you need a license to run a barber shop or whether you need a Clean Air permit.  We ought to have all those folks housed in one agency.  And I think what we would end up with is a one-stop shop for business where there would be accountability, transparency built into that and they would find that much easier to comply with.”

One-stop shopping for permits would help businesses avoid having to contact the many offices and agencies required for larger projects.  It could help.  But it’s not entirely clear whether that’s what the Snyder administration has in mind.

Barry Rabe is a professor of public policy and of the environment at the University of Michigan.  He says look at the Snyder platform and you’ll find very few details.  And… he says while streamlining the regulatory process sounds good… he advises moving “very cautiously.”

“Streamlining is an intriguing word.  It is a work invoked often in political campaigns.  I’m not sure there’s been a candidate for gubernatorial office from either party in any of the Great Lakes states in the last twenty years who has not talked about the desirability of some form of streamlining.  The devil is in the details in what that means.”

Rabe says those details can be the difference between making the government regulatory process more efficient or making regulations weaker.

“I don’t think we would want to streamline permits process that moves so rapidly that any firm could do anything that it wanted at any time and perhaps increase the likelihood of a mistake or a spill or something along those lines.  So, that’s the potential downside of streamlining.  If you cut your staff so quickly, put so much pressure on them to rubber-stamp anything that comes across their desk, there can really be some risks and some negative consequences. ”

So… that’s the dilemma.  Governor-elect Rick Snyder will have to find that balance as he begins to streamline the regulatory process.  And it should start with really determining just how much of an impediment Michigan’s regulations are to business.

Tomorrow… I'll examine that question of just how burdensome regulations are to Michigan’s economy.