Cutting government means facing sacred cows, Episode II

A few weeks ago, I penned a column praising Aurora Congressman and war veteran Mike Coffman for having the, umm, brass for demanding that the Pentagon cut its budget along with the rest of government.

Recall the argument: Historically, Democrats have been loath to cut their favorite programs — namely, Social Security and Medicare. Republicans, meanwhile, have been unwilling to demand streamlining, downsizing or even plausible fiscal circumspection from the budget-writers over at the Pentagon.

Stating the obvious, I pointed out that both sides are always willing to cut the other party’s priority, but never their own.

Ergo: gridlock on spending cuts. Presto: a $14 trillion national debt. Allakhazam: a nation sliding toward financial ruin.

Coffman has earned rightful plaudits from many a conservative commentator for confronting the GOP’s most sacred of sacred cows — military spending. He thinks it can be done without compromising our defenses, and a lot of smart people in Washington (if there is such a thing) are beginning to agree.

That’s political courage. And that’s something our political process needs more of.

In the spirit of honoring sacred-cow confrontation at the state level, Governor John Hickenlooper and Mike King, his Director of Department of Natural Resources, deserve their own tip-of-the-hat.

Going where only fools, the ill-educated or super gutsy tread, Hickenlooper and King have proposed consolidating the Division of Wildlife with its sister Division of Parks and Recreation. Both Divisions are satellites under the Department of Natural Resources.

If this seems like it should be a no-brainer in an era of shrinking state budgets, you’re right. It should be. History, however, suggests it will be anything but.

Nowhere else in state government is another state agency, department or division met with such pomp, fever and emotion as the Division of Wildlife. The sportsmen, hunters and environmentalists who follow the commission’s work live and breathe this stuff.

For these, the Division of Wildlife handbook is only slightly less important than the Lamb’s Book of Life. For them, the debate about things like the allocation of hunting tags in elite big game units is the kind of stuff you fist-fight over. And while they can and frequently do enter into verbal fisticuffs with one another over wildlife policy, there’s nothing that unites these diverse stakeholders like a politician or political appointee meddling in the Division of Wildlife’s daily endeavors.

But meddle Hick and King are. They are demanding streamlining, reform and consolidation, suggesting that central and regional offices be folded together,  and that duplicative functions be eliminated. Seems straight forward enough, right? Wrong.

Ask Greg Walcher. He proposed a wholesale re-organization of the Department of Natural Resources during his stint as DNR chief during the Bill Owens administration. Frankly, his restructuring plan then was less ambitious than Hickenlooper’s now. But the defenders of the Division of Wildlife’s political independence waged an almost literal fatwa on Walcher for having the guts to tell the department and the division it could get better. On this newspaper’s pro-DOW editorial page, Walcher earned frequent scorn for many months.

With the media stoking the imbroglio, West Slope legislators cut and ran on Walcher’s re-organization plan, DOW stakeholder groups piled on, and soon the Division of Wildlife staff did too. By the time it was over, Walcher’s re-organization push went nowhere, and business as usual at the Department of Natural Resources prevailed. The whole ordeal got so messy that it dogged Walcher throughout his almost-succesful bid for Congress.

All of this is prologue to Hickenlooper’s own reform push in the present. The organizational chart of state government is littered with duplicative departments, divisions, boards and commissions — the Division of Wildlife and State Parks among them. Wanna balance the budget and lessen the impact on schools and roads? Consolidating overlapping bureaucracies is a place government can save some real cash, and actually improve the services it provides as well. Hickenlooper knows this, as does a large and bipartisan group of legislators who are running legislation to implement the plan.

If Hick ultimately succeeds in convincing the Legislature to consolidate the Division of Wildlife and State Parks, it will be a small but important achievement for good government. Taxpayer money will be saved, and government will be more efficient. And no one will be smiling about it more then Greg Walcher.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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