I happened to be at the luncheon yesterday at which John Skvarla, head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, explained how his agency intends to help the state’s economy while also protecting the environment. The News & Observer wrote a competent story about the event.
I’m not dissing the paper, but it has limited room, and there are other parts of the comments that are worth exploring. (BTW, I left my notes at home, so this is from my recollection; I will update if needed later.)
First, he opened by stressing that when Gov. Pat McCrory began discussing the post with him, Skvarla said he insisted he be free to bring in the best people to do their jobs the right way. Saying so doesn’t make it so, but it’s worthwhile to keep that in mind.
Skvarla then went into some detail about the mess the new administration is facing. For instance, he brought up the NCTracks billing system for Medicaid. Updating the system took a decade. Here’s the kicker: The new system is written in COBOL, a by-now antiquated computer language, Skvarla said. (Here’s more on that.) COBOL is hardly taught in the United States. Programmers from India have to deal with the problems.
In other words, the new Medicaid billing system, costing hundreds of millions, is already obsolescent. It’s just a tad better than giving clerks typewriters.
Skvarla’s point was that that is the situation facing the new administration in many other areas. In short, it’s going to take them a while to get everything going. Now, we conservatives rightly lambaste President Obama for his unending complaints about what he inherited. But eight months isn’t five years. Taxpayers rightly expect results, but some patience is merited for those results to become apparent.
Also, the headline “Leader to orient DENR toward economy” is a bit misleading. Yes, he said the agency must consider the economy. Without businesses and taxpayers contributing, the state would be bankrupt. Then there’s no money to clean up streams or run state parks — or pay teachers or Medicaid bills.
And too much red tape does hurt North Carolina. Skvarla said a major furniture maker with plants across the nation said that North Carolina was the worst place in the U.S. to do business — and that includes California, a regulatory nightmare. That story is repeated across the Tar Heel State. Too much regulation robs the state of jobs and tax income — which hampers our ability to protect and enjoy our natural resources.
Skvarla insisted that understanding economics did not mean turning away from the environment, but protecting it more effectively and efficiently.
The solution isn’t to ignore the environment, or to go overboard, he said, but to enforce the rules fairly and sensibly, not play regulatory games. For instance, in the past a low-level state employee could gum up the application process for years by sitting on an application then, the day before the deadline, requesting more information.
Skvarla said that now, after a certain point fairly early in the process, applications cross his desk so he can evaluate if it is being processed reasonably. Amazingly, delays have decreased.
Or consider the controversial Jordan Lake rules meant to address algae clean up. Technology may be able to solve the problem at a fraction of the price. Why not delay the Jordan Rules to give the technology a chance? Remember, money used on the lake can’t be used to run museums or clean up other pollution. Creative solutions can help the environment while also bolstering the state’s economy. (More here.)
As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. But it’s important to put Skvarla’s remarks in their full context. Bolstering the economy need not hurt the environment — if the state government proceeds sensibly and intelligently.
(Photo of a waterfall in NC mountain landscape is courtesy of stock.xchange.)