Fat-finders in budget trim some holy cows

October 22, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

In the midst of the state's fiscal crisis, legislators have discovered an interesting document -- the state budget.

For the past three weeks, the legislature has been looking at the big picture -- getting rid of a $450 million deficit and making multimillion- dollar decisions on which programs to pay for.

State senators have now narrowed their focus, looking at the little things that puff up the cost of state government and send talk show critics into a feeding frenzy.

The little things include car phones, out-of-state travel, magazine subscriptions, state cars and public information officers.

"A number of sacred cows are going to have to be killed," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. predicted last week. "This is a mammoth task that will take some mammoth amount of intestinal fortitude."

The state Senate has launched a special search for fat. Some senators have already offered some examples of fat.

Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, wondered aloud last Friday about the size of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's entourage. "What about the bloated executive staff?" he asked.

Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-City, set his gun sight on the governor's arts coordinator and the "Maryland, You Are Beautiful" program, including its unpaid director. "She's overpaid as a volunteer," Lapides told his colleagues on the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"I'm not voting for any tax until we get the garbage out of government," Lapides declared.

Many of the targets, of course, won't make much of a dent in a $450 million deficit. The arts program has an appropriation of $287,732. And the "Maryland, You Are Beautiful" campaign, with three employees, has a budget of about $70,000.

Others are more substantial. The state, for example, spends about $20 million on out-of-state travel, much of it for employees of state colleges.

Some legislators are looking to slash funds for the Baltimore Convention Center, or to trim the funding set aside for a new football stadium should Baltimore land a National Football League franchise.

Some sacred cows have already bought the farm. In the recent heat of the budget crisis, lawmakers reversed decades of precedent by capping state aid for teachers' pensions for this year, despite protests from teachers and local school officials.

The Senate fat-finders party may cross paths with a committee appointed by Schaefer that is also examining the budget for efficiency.

Schaefer, who is often peppered with taxpayer complaints on his weekly radio talk show, said last week that ferreting out waste and inefficiency are important, but won't solve the budget problem.

"The fat had been removed a long time ago," Schaefer said.

Miller agreed.

"They call up and talk about road crews standing around while one person is fixing a pothole," Miller said. "They talk about misuse of state cars. . . . What we are going to do is look at that. And we're not going to find $180 million in waste, obviously. We might not even find $1 million in waste, but we are going to look at it and tell the public that we've looked at this."

As a prelude to its budget search, the legislature has cut its own spending by about 5 percent, slashing about $2 million in maintenance, travel, personnel and other costs. And each legislator will have to absorb a $500 cut in his or her budget for office expenses back home.

And chaplains who deliver the daily prayer in the House of Delegates and Senate will, from now on, have to buy their own gasoline for the drive to Annapolis.

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