DENVER – Proponents of a merger between the state’s wildlife and parks divisions are counting on a new governor and quick action by the Legislature to it push through after a similar proposal was shot down seven years ago.
The plan seeks to save money by combining one of the state’s most imperiled agencies – the parks division – with one of its most controversial – the Division of Wildlife.
The two were combined 40 years ago, and the Legislature split them apart in 1972. But the state flubbed the breakup by assigning lands that were purchased with federal wildlife money to the parks division.
A federal audit of Colorado turned up problems 25 years after the breakup of the agencies.
A merger was considered again as recently as 2004, during the last big recession, and deemed a bad idea.
“Vastly different missions, a lack of any efficiency savings, and the array of federal diversion issues negate any real operational benefits. A merger of the two divisions could repeat the problems of commingling funding sources that was experienced 40 years ago,” a Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation staff report concluded.
But this year is different, said Mike King, director of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees both the wildlife and parks divisions.
“We’re going to learn from our history,” King said.
The problems the federal audit turned up in the 1990s were clear violations, such as using land bought with federal wildlife dollars for a state prison. And they stemmed from the breakup of the wildlife-parks agency, not its merger, King said.
A controversial agency
The Division of Wildlife raises powerful emotions among both hunters and lawmakers.
Hunters and anglers feel protective of the DOW. With the exception of the Colorado Mule Deer Association – a longtime DOW critic – Colorado’s major sportsmen’s groups have come out against the merger.
The DOW is a large agency, with an $86 million budget and the equivalent of 631 employees, but it takes no state tax dollars because it relies on federal funds and fees from hunting licenses, in large part the $549.18 nonresidents pay for an elk permit.
Several lawmakers cast a skeptical eye on the agency, including Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who has oversight of the DOW as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
“It’s not that I dislike the DOW. I just want the DOW accountable. They have been somewhat less than transparent,” Sonnenberg said.
Sonnenberg is especially watchful over the DOW’s land purchases, which sometimes take agricultural land out of production.
A merger would not send tax dollars to the DOW and bring it under tighter financial control by the Legislature. But the new agency will get a new director, appointed by a combined parks and wildlife board with approval from King.
Ailing state parks
The parks division goes into the merger as the weaker partner. It’s half the size of the DOW, in terms of its budget and workforce. Unlike the DOW, it relies on tax dollars, but it will lose that funding this year because of the recession.
Many of the 42 state parks are at risk, legislators say, including ones that allow hunting.
“If we don’t combine them and we close a third of the parks, that’s a third less parks that hunters and anglers have access to,” Sonnenberg said.
Sonnenberg is sponsoring the bill to merge the two agencies, Senate Bill 208, along with Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, who is chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
King and the sponsors of SB 208 lined up a powerful coalition of dozens of lawmakers to virtually assure the bill’s passage.
Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the bill. The merger would be the most visible achievement in his pledge to make state government smaller and more efficient.
The bill hit a snag Tuesday, when Senate President Brandon Shaffer asked sponsors to delay a vote for a week so he could take another look at it. Before Shaffer’s move, the bill was speeding through the Legislature.
“It just happened lightning fast,” said Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville.
The agencies have different cultures, Jones said.
“A lot of people say that’s outdoors stuff. That’s like saying Medicaid and food stamps are the same thing,” he said. “I think we’ll be back in eight or 10 years undoing it.”
Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, also is skeptical.
“I’ve got an open mind, but I have real questions as to whether it’s the best thing,” Brown said.
King pledges to accept suggestions about how to make a merger work, but he does not want to study whether to do it in the first place.
“You go into it knowing you’re going to come out the other end with no efficiencies and no meaningful change. Inertia’s a powerful force,” King said. “It’s a matter of style. The governor clearly supports a bold approach, and this is part of that.”