Our new governor, Andrew Cuomo has said that he wants to “right size” the state government. While few people disagree with him on the generalities, there are likely to be major battles ahead when it comes to the specifics. One of the problems he is going to face is that Governor Paterson made a number of cuts, some of them significant – to the extent that he virtually gutted one department, the Department of Environmental Conservation. This is the state department which is responsible for enforcing the environmental laws, protecting the fish, wildlife, and forests of the state, as well as running a significant campground and trail system. Besides the already significant cuts that had been made through 2010, Governor Paterson lopped an additional 150 positions, leading to the firing of the Commissioner of the department when he protested.
What has been interesting – and dismaying – about these cuts is not that they’re being made, but where they’re made. Looking through the listing of positions being cut, as well as taking a look back at the others in the past, what I note is that they’re almost strictly field positions. Laborers, secretaries, chemists, biologists, foresters, and law enforcement. There are a number of retirees from that department in the area, some of whom are fairly recent retirees, and several of the comments I’ve heard from them have been along the lines of “there’s no way they can cut that many and still make things work.” Whether that’s true or not, something else happened – the State just added more land (and attendant responsibilities) to the Department’s plate. There’s a difference between doing “more with less” and “doing less with almost nothing.” Which is where things have been headed.
The previous cuts already have had an impact:
New York loggers are already cutting considerably less wood on state land that they did a decade ago, noted Eric Carlson, executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association, one of Tuesday’s participants. And with fewer DEC foresters and technicians available to mark trees that can be cut, activity is further reduced.
Ironically, Carlson figured the state is missing out on between $5 million and $10 million a year on logging fees because the trees aren’t marked.
That’s in addition to the closure of campgrounds, and other programs. Looking ahead, delays in construction permits, drilling for gas, clean-up of hazardous waste, and other programs are getting worse. All of which has a direct economic impact on the state. It’s not just the loss of government jobs, it’s the delays in, and losses, of economic activities. If you need a permit to conduct your business, and the people who review and issue permits are short-staffed, the odds are pretty good that your permit isn’t going to happen quickly, even if you’ve done everything right.
I chose this Department as an example. It’s been, as I said earlier, virtually gutted. It provides a lesson for future cuts and reorganizations. Few people in New York argue that the state government is unwieldy, and probably overstaffed – as a whole. The questions that haven’t asked is what the government needs to do, as well as where any cuts should be made, and what is the staffing needed to accomplish that job. Those are the questions that Governor Cuomo needs to ask, which Governor Paterson didn’t. While it’s popular to say “cut,” the cuts may have an impact that’s the opposite of what was intended. Yes, it might “save” money, but because something isn’t done, more was lost.