By KEVIN WALKER
LANSING, Mich. — Late last week Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued an executive order that combines the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) into a new Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).
“The Department of Natural Resources and Environment is a new department for the 21st century,” she said. “Experience has shown us that conserving natural resources and protecting the environment go hand-in-hand. These efforts now will be coordinated under one department.”
Unless it is overridden by the legislature, the order will take effect Jan. 17, 2010. A DNRE director will be appointed by the governor. Former mayor of Marshall, Mich., Bruce Rasher has been named as interim manager of the department until a new director takes over in January. Rasher used to work at Consumers Energy and is presently an executive at CB Richard Ellis.
Although the order doesn’t combine the state Department of Agriculture (MDA), several provisions of it will affect the department. The order will give the governor the authority to appoint the director; currently the director is employed by a bipartisan commission.
According to the Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB), the power of the Agriculture Commission would be taken away. For example, revisions to the Generally Accepted Agriculture and Management Practices – which are part of Michigan’s Right to Farm Act – would be placed in the hands of the director, but the director would no longer be answerable to the Agriculture Commission.
Tonia Ritter, state governmental affairs manager for the MFB, said it is opposed to the new arrangement.
“The commission has direct contact with agriculture,” Ritter said. “There are four individuals on the commission that are involved in production agriculture or the food system. They have oftentimes been on the receiving end of services from the department. It offers an opportunity for debate on the issue. It would remove the accountability of the director to the commission.
“For 44 years we’ve had this system in place. Frankly, we believe it removes the transparency of the policy decisions that the department makes.”
The MFB is also opposed to changes the governor wants to make with the Natural Resources Commission, which currently hires the director of the DNR. Ritter said this commission would retain its authority over wildlife management, but would no longer hire the director of the DNR or DNRE.
The Farm Bureau would also like a system in which the DEQ director is employed by a commission system, Ritter said. Currently that position is answerable to the governor.
Liz Boyd, press secretary for the governor, had this to say about the change in who appoints the MDA director:
“Ultimately the citizens turn to the governor even though the governor doesn’t appoint the agriculture director. I wonder how many people really know that the governor doesn’t appoint the agriculture director. It’s really about matching up perception with reality.”
The order would also transfer the regulation of horse racing from the Office of Racing Commissioner (ORC), which is a part of the MDA, to the Michigan Gaming Control Board. The ORC and the position of racing commissioner would be abolished.
The Michigan Gaming Control Board’s executive director would perform the function of racing commissioner, under the new arrangement.
The order would abolish three agricultural entities: the Agricultural Preservation Fund Board, the Michigan Family Farm Development Authority and the Pesticide Advisory Committee. Those groups’ functions would be transferred directly to the MDA.
A spokesman for state Rep. Mike Simpson (D-Jackson), chairman of the House agriculture committee, said “they’re going to look to override” the executive order because of the changes affecting agriculture. A simple majority in each chamber of the legislature is needed to override an executive order.
“We know there are concerns among many legislators about the executive order,” Ritter said.
She noted many are concerned about it from an agricultural standpoint, while others have concerns about some aspects of the DNR-DEQ merger.