A 'Grace Commission' for Maryland?

September 03, 1991

Reluctantly and with some misgivings, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has decided to let an outside group of experts analyze Maryland's vast state government and recommend cost-cutting and operating efficiencies. The commission, headed by retiring C&P chief J. Henry Butta, could come up with some surprising results.

In an $11 billion business, there is sure to be waste and unwise use of manpower and resources. That is why this commission is long overdue. If Mr. Schaefer gives Mr. Butta enough time and authority, the panel could return with major cost-saving suggestions and sensible ways to consolidate and downsize state operations.

Mr. Butta is well qualified for the task. He is a no-nonsense business executive who led the governor's transition team in 1986 that recommended the reorganization of four major state departments. He has also presided over the state's revamped higher education system as chairman of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Though the governor is skeptical there is much "fat" left to cut, state activity needs fresh study. The Butta panel might, for instance, recommend greater use of computers and facsimile machines to reduce manpower in regional offices, or merging the state's marketing and promotion offices or shrinking the State Department of Education.

Health services could be a prime target. One of Mr. Butta's transition teams recommended in 1987 "a thorough study" of the health department's organization of programs. "We believe that the department can and should be more efficiently structured," it concluded. Yet nothing was done. Five years later, Mr. Butta has a second chance to streamline this giant bureaucracy.

During the Reagan years in Washington, corporate executive Peter Grace headed a similar panel that issued a voluminous report on saving money and improving government efficiency. The Butta group could become Maryland's equivalent of the Grace commission, but only if the governor does not push for a slap-- job. He's already talking about a December report from a commission whose full membership has yet to be announced.

Downsizing state government is all the rage in Annapolis. Four legislative panels are studying state operations with an eye toward narrowing Maryland's $1 billion deficit. Mr. Schaefer's cabinet secretaries also have been ordered to come up with ways to chop expenses.

Given these efforts to cut immediate costs, the governor would be wise to let Mr. Butta pursue a longer-range objective. The Butta commission could provide Mr. Schaefer with a comprehensive list of changes that will save taxpayer dollars as well as improve the delivery of public services. That would be a list worth waiting for.

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