Passing out pain xTC

Frank A. DeFilippo

October 17, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE EAR-POPPING fuss over cuts in the state budget proves once and for all that government can never do enough where it formerly did nothing.

For in the rhythms and cycles of government gilding, there is at first stiff resistance, then gradual acceptance and finally total dependence. It's like getting mellow on a government fix.

A case in point is the Maryland Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore. A quarter of a century ago, nobody in government would lend an ear to R Adams Cowley when he proposed establishing the now-eponymous Cowley Center. Even after he got the center going on a limited budget and a lot of chutzpah, the oligarchs at University Hospital, prodded by the medical marplots in Baltimore, tried to abolish the center and eject Cowley from his directorship.

And only a year ago, the wine-and-cheese crowd protested the location of a helicopter base in Montgomery County because the choppers are noisy and would disturb the sleep.

When Governor Schaefer proposed grounding the Med-Evac helicopters from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. as an act of bottom-fishing in the budget to save $319,000, you'd have thought the good burghers in MoCo would have welcomed the extra four hours of sleep. But no, they screamed, as did others, that precious lives would be lost if their heliport were to be shut down in the middle of the night.

Over the past four years, the state police have averaged 28.5 percent in pay raises while the remainder of the state work force has averaged only 19.2 percent. In 1990, for example, troopers were given a 12 percent salary increase while other state workers got only 4.9 percent.

Yet the troopers moaned and groaned the loudest and most publicly over the hit they had to take in the effort to reduce the state's budget by $450 million. They argued that public safety would be imperiled by the reduction in their ranks.

But there was a time when only the presiding officers of the General Assembly had state police drivers assigned to them. Today, every committee chairman has access to a state police chauffeur during assembly sessions as part of a package of perks. Taking troopers off the road for such a high purpose apparently does not endanger public safety.

Then there's the tetchy matter of the $500-a-year clothing allowance for troopers who wear civvies to work and tuxedos to formal affairs. This little bonus is a bequest from former Gov. Marvin Mandel to those janizaries who surround the governor by day and escort him to froufrou parties by night. The decision to buy tuxedos was made only after a lengthy discussion over whether renting tuxedos would be cheaper in the long run.

Another good example are the halfway houses for drug addicts. Every time the health department attempts to establish a house in a community, howls go up from the NIMBYs. Yet when Schaefer proposed eliminating the program, screams arose that without the network of halfway houses the addicts would be loose on the streets.

The same goes for rape crisis centers. In the painful and guilt-ridden world of sexual politics, the centers were small and slow to come but they sure got big and popular in a hurry. The threat of elimination aroused the feminist lobby, which raised the specter of thousands of abused and assaulted women with no place to go for help.

The average family scrimps and saves to put a child through college. It costs about $22,000 a year to attend Johns Hopkins but $40,000 a year to house a prisoner in a Maryland prison. In the Free State, the cheapest way to get a college education is to rob a bank and get thrown in the slammer. Any prisoner who's ambitious enough can earn a college degree while in jail at the expense of Maryland taxpayers. When Schaefer proposed abolishing the $3.9 million program, he was criticized for being against rehabilitation.

Constructing an operating budget is a natural act among consenting adults. In the high-flying junk-bond years, the choice was among desirable programs. In lean years, the decision is among essentials. Put another way, it's easy to govern when there's money. It's tough when there's not.

Every program in the budget has a constituency and every advocacy group has a principal noisemaker. In the parliament of squeaky wheels, though, whoever gets the grease gets it at somebody else's expense. The troopers, the general public assistance recipients and many clients of treatment, education and social services got much of their money back, but somebody else had to pay. In this case, the wards of the state will survive at the expense of services in the subdivisions, which are taking greater losses to restore state programs.

But Maryland is not the only state that's passing out pain. Government is no longer a growth industry. Connecticut has laid off 2,500 workers and is threatening to lay off another 7,500. Massachusetts is laying off 4,000, Ohio 1,000 and Maine 200. New York has reduced its work force by 18,000 and is laying off another 1,300. New Jersey has trimmed its work force by 5,000 and is considering laying off another 5,000. California will lay off 3,000 workers in January.

The problem is not so much the number of employees we have or can do without. The real problem is all of those generous programs that we have but didn't want in the first place. We've become government junkies.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics.

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