Paying lip service to efficiency in government is easy, but it apparently takes the kind of budget crisis now facing Maryland to force a really tough look at the mechanics and cost of government operations.
Last Friday, the governor's Commission on Efficiency and Economy in Government presented its preliminary recommendations, which could yield as much as $60 million a year in savings and increased revenues. The report also sketches out the commission's strategy for further review of major state programs with an eye toward making them responsive to citizens, self-supporting where possible and generally targeted toward prevention of problems rather than crisis intervention. That's a promising start.
Commission Chairman J. Henry Butta acknowledges that many of these recommendations will meet stiff opposition. Imagine the unhappiness the report will produce at Maryland's public colleges, all of which waive tuition for employees and their dependents. The commission suggests the waiver be halved for faculty members until the budget crisis abates. For non-faculty employees, it suggests dropping the waiver altogether. As Butta points out, this is not just penny-pinching. It's also an equity issue -- after all, this perk is not available to other state employees, many of whom may be performing the same functions as non-faculty university employees.
Other proposals would raise fees for licenses and permits to reflect their true cost to the state. Under this plan, the cost for a handgun permit could rise from $25 to $235. That's one of the heftiest fee increases, and gun owners surely will resist the change. But before legislators cave in, they should be prepared to explain why other taxpayers should continue to subsidize handgun ownership to the tune of $210 per license.
If that sounds like a daunting task for legislators, consider the spectacle of spineless groveling we're likely to see when bikers converge on the General Assembly to oppose the helmet law the commission recommends. Yet when the bikers talk about the "infringement" of their freedoms, it's worth keeping in mind that, in 1990, the cost of caring for injured motorcyclists wearing helmets in accidents was $1.2 million -- as compared with $5.1 million for those without helmets. That cost differential should be of considerable interest to taxpayers, since the state picks up the tab for uninsured accident victims and those with Medicaid coverage. If motorists are required to wear seat belts and to provide car seats for infants and young children, bikers have little reason to complain about a helmet law.
The commission has done its work well. If legislators and taxpayers really want efficiency in government -- as opposed to protecting their own turf while cutting someone else's -- they now have a sensible blueprint on which to act.