February 4, 2009 at 1:00 am

Editorial: Act on governor's call for government reform now

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, in her State of the State message Tuesday, called for a major restructuring of state government. The state's chronic budget deficits require nothing less, and the governor was right to do so. But action on such a restructuring has to begin now.

The governor called for what she termed "a comprehensive effort to dramatically change the shape and size of state government" to be headed by Lt. Gov. John Cherry. That's an important exercise, but it would have been more useful had it been done several years ago, not in the penultimate year of her last term in office.

After all, many of the state's major business groups have already issued reports and analyses of changes that could add up to nearly $1.5 billion in savings. These groups, joined by the nonpartisan Center for Michigan, have formed a coalition to push for these changes.

Their suggestions should be part of this year's deliberations. Momentum for reform cannot be lost. As the governor rightly noted, state government should not depend on a federal stimulus package to relieve it of hard decisions. "The president's economic recovery plan is a one-time opportunity, not a permanent funding stream," she said.

The state Constitution grants the governor authority to restructure state government through executive orders that have the force of law unless they are overturned by the Legislature within 60 days. Streamlining state government must be part of this year's budget process, which will begin after Granholm presents her fiscal blueprint for next year in a few days.

Two moves announced by the governor suggest she is moving in the right direction. She called for the elimination of the Department of History, Art and Libraries by finding other funding for its functions.

And she asked that decisions on wetland permits be removed from the state Department of Environmental Quality and given to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Having the EPA in charge of wetlands regulation in Michigan would align Michigan with 49 other states. Given our budget situation, Michigan simply can't afford unnecessarily duplicative functions.

The governor announced a dramatic increase in the state's effort to force technological development by proposing that the state reduce its reliance on fossil fuel energy 45 percent by 2020. She also called for the creation of a Michigan Energy Corps to put "thousands" of unemployed residents to work weatherizing homes and public buildings, installing renewable energy technology.

Families and businesses would be allowed to install the improvements, in conjunction with utility firms, "with zero up-front charges."

The governor also called on the state's utility commission to examine both the need for new electrical plants and whether they should be powered by coal.

Coal can't be ruled out. It now accounts for 60 percent or more of the electricity generated in this state. And electricity costs are already higher here than in surrounding states.

The governor contends that a push into alternative energy will make the state economically competitive but these moves need careful examination.

Whatever Michigan's future, it will need adequate, reliable and cost-effective supplies of energy.

State government's track record on predicting economic and technological developments is not overwhelming.

Michigan needs to get its fiscal house in order and the governor's call for dramatic restructuring should be state government's first job.