How Schaefer Can Seize the Symbolic High Ground


November 03, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Has the master of political symbolism lost his touch? How else do you explain Gov. William Donald Schaefer's failure to use this essential tool during Maryland's budget-deficit siege?

The governor is taking a public pummeling for 1) inflicting pain on the poor and helpless; 2) arrogantly refusing to cut his own staff or salary; and 3) denying that there is, indeed, additional "fat" to be trimmed. He's displayed no eagerness to cut non-essential government spending.

Mr. Schaefer has exacerbated matters by refusing to adopt the kinds of gestures Marylanders expect of him. After all, Mayor Schaefer was a genius when it came to symbolic moves: swimming with the seals at the aquarium, wearing funny hats, creating hokey events to rejuvenate public spirit. It worked.

Now he is confronted with a far different situation. He has to find ways to communicate his determination to cut superfluous spending. You don't do that by swimming with the seals.

Here are some steps that might convince Marylanders of Mr. Schaefer's sincerity:

* End complaints about the governor's $35,000 pay raise by announcing Mr. Schaefer has chopped his salary in half -- returning the entire pay raise to the treasury and donating another $25,000 to the United Way to help the needy.

* Order cabinet-level officials to cut their salaries by 10 percent. Order all sub-cabinet managers to cut their pay by 5 percent.

* Challenge state judges and legislators to match this effort with stiff pay cuts of their own.

* Order cabinet officials to chop management ranks ruthlessly.

* Order a massive cut in non-essential agency staff, especially in the area of public relations and personnel. Most department PR offices are badly bloated; many shouldn't even exist.

* Set an example by slashing the governor's press office in half and merging it with the scheduling and public relations office.

* Merge the eight offices within the executive staff all dealing with health and family social concerns.

* Cut the executive staff from the 300 listed in the state's telephone directory index by half.

* Propose a constitutional amendment to abolish the office of Secretary of State. It is an ornamental and costly post.

* Fire all "special consultants" on the governor's staff.

* Cut the governor's Baltimore office to a bare-bones operation.

* Eliminate the "Maryland You are Beautiful" Office and the Office of Art and Culture. They are symbols of government excess; the same functions can be handled in other departments with existing staff.

* Brutally slash use of state cars and eliminate virtually all car phones. Challenge the legislature to do likewise.

* Cease using state troopers as chauffeurs for the governor and state legislative leaders. Create a pool of civilian drivers instead.

On a personal level, the governor can show his eagerness to save tax dollars by leasing his Pasadena home for the duration of his term, thus eliminating the need for State Police surveillance. He can do the same thing for his Baltimore home.

At the Governor's Mansion, Mr. Schaefer should drastically cut the staff and rent out the public rooms -- at a steep price -- for private social functions.

And he should sell, rather than mothball, the state yacht (if he needs to borrow one for the day, he can get a loaner from corporate friends).

Finally, the governor should embark on several long-term spending crusades:

* Announce an early-retirement plan to shrink the work force over the next three years through more rapid attrition;

* Go on a government energy-savings rampage;

* Propose a special state bond issue to purchase office buildings at fire-sale prices for use by government agencies now occupying rented space (the savings would be in the tens of millions of dollars);

* Sell off some state operations to the private sector (the World Trade Center is a prime candidate).

Most important, Mr. Schaefer ought to give enthusiastic support to the cost-cutting efforts of the Butta commission on efficiency in state government.

So far, he has done nothing but express resentment at the notion that further cuts are possible. Yet in Connecticut, a commission on tthe management of state government came up with suggestions that already have saved $239 million.

Mr. Schaefer must seize leadership of the efficiency-in-government movement by becoming a cheerleader for this new, frugal approach. He must champion hard-headed, penny-pinching management. Such "do it now" spirit in a cost-containment crusade might turn public criticism to public applause.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each Sunday.

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