Cutting waste board prompted behind-the-scenes battle

Gov. Schwarzenegger's move to eliminate the state's Integrated Waste Management Board led to a fierce, behind-the-scenes battle at the highest levels of the bureaucracy. The tensions flared not over removing the board but over turf and money – the transfer of millions of dollars of fees from the state's Environmental Protection Agency to a department within the Natural Resources Agency.

The six-member board, created in a deal struck by former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a Democrat, and former Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican, has long been criticized as a soft landing for termed-out lawmakers and friends of the powerful. It has become a public target of the governor, who says it epitomizes government waste.

Current board members — there is one vacancy on the panel — earn $132,178 annually. All political appointees, they include three former Democratic lawmakers – former Sens. Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica and Carole Migden of San Francisco, and former Assemblyman John Laird of Santa Cruz. Former appointees included Deukmejian's chief of staff and budget writer, ex-lawmakers and and spouses of Sacramento's power players.

The board, which directs a 450-member, $235 million state operation, regulates the permitting and inspections of nearly 300 landfills across the state that handle some 42 million tons of garbage annually, and has a number of recycling programs

Legislation signed by Schwarzenegger eliminated the board and transferred its functions to a new department within the Resources Agency, which is headed by Mike Chrisman, a Cabinet-level environmental adviser.

Bills to do just that were authored by Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, and Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-Lodi. Legislation also was authored by Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, who urged last year that the board be eliminated, and Assemblyman Ted Gainest, R-Rocklin. The bill that the governor signed was Strickland's SB 63.

Schwarzenegger has said elimination of the board was at the top of his priority list. "That's on the top of the list – the most absurd one because it costs the most money because people are sitting there with $132,000, or whatever, salaries," Schwarzenegger said last month in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

But others say the move is more posturing than substance, and that placing the board's functions within a new state department will cost more than it saves.

Critics note that the board's operations are covered by trash and recycling fees from the sale of new tires, tonnage fees from landfills, motor-oil sales and the sale of new TVs and computer monitors, which alone bring in about $100 million annually, and that eliminating the panel will have little or no impact on the strapped General Fund. They believe Schwarzenegger has focused on the board in part to divert attention from cuts he's supported in public education and social services, among others.

An internal government analysis of the board's elimination reviewed by Capitol Weekly showed that the elimination might save $2 million to $3 million annually in salaries and benefits for board members, among other things. "However, any savings would be lost and a fiscal impact of several million (dollars) would be observed for several years by transferring the newly created (department) from the Cal-EPA to the Natural Resources Agency."

Others agreed.

"The movement of the staff and programs from Cal-EPA to the NRA (Natural Resources Agency) incurs needless costs in excess of millions of dollars. Leaving the new department within Cal-EPA would eliminate thse costs and preserve the integration…that the culture of Cal-EPA demands," Sen. Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

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