Make permits predictable

Think about your last commercial airplane trip and the minor hassles you endured just to reach your seat.

You had your paperwork and baggage checked. You passed through security screening and surrendered your privacy and (perhaps) your dignity. And then you sat around the boarding area, wondering if they were ever going to announce your flight. Or at least tell you why it was delayed.

Well, for many businesses, the permitting process is not very different.

For decades, politicians from both major parties have trumpeted the need for streamlined permitting throughout regulatory agencies. Many Democrats, who wish to be seen as “business friendly,” are determined to demonstrate that government is actually capable of efficiency. And many Republicans, unabashed advocates for business, hew to the belief that government works best when it gets out of the way.

Last week, the State Auditor’s office released a performance audit of regulatory agencies that finds room for improvements in state permitting procedures. Specifically, it determines that agencies often fail to provide businesses with useful information about how much time securing a permit will take — sometimes because the agencies themselves don’t reliably know.

The audit recommends that agencies begin collecting data and publishing information about permit time frames, providing more assistance to applicants early in the process, and tracking their own performance in order to identify and eliminate bottlenecks.

The report also notes that some of the 14 state agencies responsible for granting permits have instituted useful policies, and these “leading practices” should be shared with other offices.

It boils down to treating permit applicants the way any smart business treats valued customers. When we order merchandise, we want to know when it will arrive. When we drop our car off at the shop, we want to see a good-faith cost estimate for the repairs. But there is more at stake here than simply thawing the often icy relationship between businesses and bureaucracy.

Regulations exist to protect general health, safety and order. They help ensure our food is pure, our water is clean, our roads are safe and our property values are protected. But it is no secret that “regulation” has become a dirty word among those who would place more faith in private enterprise than they do government. (Never mind product recalls, hazardous waste spills or food-borne illnesses.)

Poor administration can taint otherwise worthwhile regulations. A permitting process that burdens businesses with delays and uncertainties further undercuts confidence in the overall system. Legislators and public-spirited state regulators should embrace and adopt the kinds of procedural improvements recommended in the State Auditor’s report.