By Jon Lender
THE HARTFORD COURANT - Gov. Dannel P. Malloy late Tuesday afternoon proposed the first of what his administration promises will be a number of government agency consolidations: combining the departments of Environmental Protection and Public Utility Control into a new agency called the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP.
The proposal — which could have sweeping effects on environmental quality and the cost of energy to consumers — was released in a manner often reserved for mundane announcements: a one-page press release, e-mailed after the close of the business day about 5:20 p.m. and lacking the most basic nuts-and-bolts details, such as projected cost savings.
In the press release, Malloy, a Democrat, said: "Merging these two functions under one leader will allow the state to act cohesively in two vitally important and directly related policy areas, particularly in terms of economic development, siting, permitting and other issues. Under this new agency, we will better integrate and coordinate our state's energy and environmental policy in order to strengthen our ability to protect the environment; to clean, conserve and lower the cost of energy; and to set the table for rapid and responsible economic growth."
The proposal was released eight days before it will be detailed in Malloy's state budget proposal for the next two years, which he'll deliver Feb. 16 in a speech to the General Assembly. Numerous other consolidations have been promised as the new governor confronts a projected $3.7 billion budget deficit next year.
The Department of Public Utility Control, a relatively small agency based in New Britain, regulates the rates charged to consumers by private utility companies that provide electricity, natural gas, water and telecommunication services. It also is the franchising authority for the state's cable TV companies.
The Department of Environmental Protection, a sprawling agency based in Hartford with facilities statewide, regulates pollution through licensing and enforcement, focusing on emissions into the air, and discharge of wastewater and solid and hazardous wastes. It also manages natural resources, including fish, wildlife and forests, and works to preserve and manage recreation lands, such as state parks, as well as to acquire open space for public use.
The Malloy administration made its budget director, Ben Barnes, available on the phone Tuesday night for a basic explanation of the reason for the merger. But Barnes said he didn't have all the details, such as the number of employees the combined agency would have. He also didn't promise significant financial savings from the consolidation; he said the point of this consolidation is less about saving taxpayer dollars in the short term than it is about creating a central energy-planning and policy function that has been largely missing in state government.
Barnes is the head of the Office of Policy and Management, the budget office that has about a dozen energy planners who also would be reassigned to the new agency.
"We're trying to increase the level of attention and effort that we provide in energy planning and policy," Barnes said. "We see energy as something critical to the economic success of Connecticut. It's one of the main obstacles to job growth and prosperity."
Connecticut's consumers pay more for electric power than consumers in any other state except Hawaii, officials have said in recent years.
Barnes also said the consumption of energy, often generated by plants burning fossil fuels, is "one of the drivers of potential environmental harm," so, he said, it makes sense to put together energy and conservation planning functions in one agency.
Initial reaction was cautiously positive. Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield, who was briefed by Malloy about a half-hour before the press release went out, said he sees many "nexuses," or links, between the environment and energy, "so I'm encouraged by this," although "I need to see the details."
Tom Swan, a liberal Democrat and who runs the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, said, "I'm excited" about it.
"Connecticut has never had a real strategy on energy, never a clear laid-out strategy on how we are going to meet the energy needs in the state," he said. "The economies that will thrive over the next 25 or 30 years are going to take the lead in terms of clean energy and energy conservation."
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