5 things lawmakers can do now

What state leaders and residents say lawmakers can do to help DHEC be a more responsive agency

November 23, 2008 

1. Split it up. Create a Department of the Environment and a Department of Health. Splitting the agency would allow policymakers to gain better expertise on specific issues. As it stands, the seven-member DHEC board makes policy and reviews staff permit decisions on issues ranging from certificates of need for hospitals and licenses for residential care homes to discharge permits for water and air pollution.

2. Create a separate coastal agency. A separate agency would provide an independent voice for the coast. That’s where the bulk of new people are moving, and that’s where ecosystems often are the most fragile. Before the S.C. Coastal Council was absorbed into DHEC in 1994, the council had its own board that heard permit recommendations from the staff.

3. Make DHEC, or independent health and environment agencies, part of the governor’s cabinet. This would give the governor more direct control over state environmental and health policy and provide more accountability to the public. As it stands, DHEC’s board is appointed by the governor, but he has no direct control over its actions, including the board’s choice for commissioner.

4. Quit meddling and provide more money. Lawmakers are supposed to be policymakers, not micro-managers. Lawmakers should stop pushing for decisions on environmental permits that affect their constituents. Agency staff members should not be pressured to make decisions until they have all the facts. Many DHEC programs that affect people’s health and the environment are underfunded and need additional money. The Legislature should make funding for these programs a priority.

5. Change the regulatory process. DHEC or any agency that replaces it should have authority to develop environmental and health regulations — without lawmakers having to sign off on them. State law says the Legislature can kill regulations it does not like. But DHEC has more expertise on pollution, the environment and health than part-time legislators. And it has experts on hand in the federal government to help it. Legislators should change the law to let DHEC and other state agencies set regulations without legislative influence.

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