Common-Sense Budget Cuts

December 22, 1991

As chief executive of C&P Telephone Co., J. Henry Butta was a no-nonsense manager who knew how to run a vast corporation at a high level of efficiency. Now he has produced a preliminary report on streamlining the state's $11 billion enterprise. Legislators had better take notice: Mr. Butta does not shy away from recommending significant changes to save taxpayers money and make government more self-sufficient and economical.

His Commission on Efficiency and Economy in Government, dominated by top business leaders, has drafted a short-term list of steps for legislators and Gov. William Donald Schaefer to save $60 million next year and many millions more in future years. This may be a fraction of what is needed, given Maryland's $1 billion deficit, but even these common-sense moves are sure to draw strong opposition. The success of these proposals will depend on the amount of backbone shown by General Assembly leaders, who so far have displayed more bark than bite.

For instance, the commission points out that taxpayers could save $1.3 million a year if motorcyclists were required to wear helmets. Will legislators finally face down the intimidation of biker groups? Or will they once again cave in when the motorcyclists rally in Annapolis to defeat this bill?

Are legislators willing to raise motor vehicle license fees another $8 to help finance the medevac program to the tune of $26 million? Are lawmakers up to the task of eliminating the $1 million subsidy state taxpayers give to Carroll County for resident state troopers so county taxpayers don't have to pay for their own police force? Are legislators willing to reduce Medicaid fees for transporting patients and for hospital out-patient services? And will lawmakers let the Schaefer administration shut down at least one state hospital to make the system efficient and save $10 million?

These are the kinds of questions arising from the Butta report. The panel stakes out a sound premise on which legislators and the governor should agree: "Government policy must be responsible and rational; public funds must be expended judiciously and targeted to those programs which are most critical. . . . Wherever possible, government activities should be self-supporting." That will mean big increases in user fees, a move sure to be fought by those affected.

Mr. Butta has now given legislators his initial blueprint for reducing the scope of government and making it more self-sufficient. Later, his group will look at revamping state services, consolidating regulatory functions and privatizing operations. Those proposals will be controversial. But given the state's bleak long-term outlook, sensible downsizing of government is essential. Legislators have complained loud and long about the need to "cut the fat." Now is their chance. We'll find out if they have the courage to back up their words with action when the governor presents Mr. Butta's suggestions to the General Assembly next month.

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