Gov. Scott Walker is considering a plan that would turn the state Department of Natural Resources into a self-contained agency, operating outside many of the rules and regulations guiding the rest of state government.

The plan, released this week by DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, would give the agency more autonomy to hire employees, offer merit pay and speed up the permitting process - a common complaint from businesses dealing with the department.

"We would be freed up from a lot of the red tape that slows things down," said Bob Manwell, DNR spokesman. "We would still be a state agency; we would just be operating under a different set of guidelines."

Anne Sayers, program director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, called the proposal "a classic case of having the fox guard the hen house.

"Everyone supports less red tape and greater efficiencies, but this is a sweeping change to the way we do things," Sayers said. "And I'm not sure the goal of this is to better protect and preserve our natural resources."

The concept of "charter" or "halo" agencies has been tried with limited success in Washington and Iowa - the latter attempting the measure with six agencies including Corrections, Human Services, Revenue and Natural Resources.

But a recent state audit found Iowa's charter agencies fell short of program goals. In fact, only three of the charter agencies reported significant cost savings or revenue increases, none of which could be attributed to the their revised status.

Stepp's plan, outlined in an eight-page memo to the governor this week, would be the first of its kind in Wisconsin. Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman, said the governor was "in the early stages of evaluating the possibility of some of the suggestions."

On its face, the concept fits with much of what Walker has proposed. Earlier this year the governor signed legislation that shutters the Department of Commerce and replaces it with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a public-private hybrid that is supposed to be quicker and more efficient. Walker championed the measure, despite controversies with similar agencies in several other states.

Stepp's memo, which suggests Walker would make the change via executive order, outlines a number of goals for the revamped agency, including using merit pay for employees, easing hiring regulations and reducing operating costs by 2.5 percent.

The DNR would still be a state agency, and as such its employees would still enjoy civil service protections, Manwell said.

The proposal worries state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, who thinks such an overhaul should require legislative oversight.

"This is a big deal," he said. "And it looks like another example of how they are turning the agency over to the polluters."

It is an accusation that has long dogged Walker, and Stepp. Critics have accused both of being more concerned with business than with the environment.

Stepp, a former Republican state senator, was an outspoken critic of the agency. When Walker chose her to lead it, he said he wanted someone with "a chamber-of-commerce mentality."

Stepp has in the past accused DNR of being "anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc."

When Sayers read Stepp's memo this week, she said one word stood out over and over - "customers." Several times in the memo, Stepp mentioned "customer service" and "customer satisfaction" in regard to improving access to DNR, increasing over-the-counter services and reducing permitting times for air and water.

"The people they regulate should not be thought of as customers," Sayers said. "That kind of thinking leads to placing business interest over public health and safety."

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