One Year Late, Schaefer Discovers Efficiency

BARRY RASCOVAR

January 26, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

Had Hank Butta been asked a year and a half ago to devise an efficiency-in-government report, Maryland might be in far better fiscal shape today.

Legislators and the governor would be focusing on specific suggestions for making the state bureaucratic structure more efficient and less costly.

Instead, the Butta commission report comes a year too late. The cuts that legislators have to make could be so deep and sweeping that Butta-sized reductions are of little help. You can't close a $1 billion budget gap with a mere $60 million in efficiency cuts.

Politically, it is clear in hindsight that Gov. William Donald Schaefer made a strategic mistake by ignoring the "waste in government" complaints during the 1990 election campaign. Instead of jumping on the cost-cutting bandwagon, Mr. Schaefer defended his spending practices and hinted strongly that he would back the Linowes commission's proposals to increase taxes.

After the election, despite the governor's complaints about the weak mandate he received (59 percent of the vote), and the shocking defeat of local officials who championed tax and spending programs similar to the governor's, Mr. Schaefer continued to deflect efforts to create an efficiency commission.

He insisted he was squeezing all the "waste" out of government. He did, in fact, cut quite heavily into programs, but without a comprehensive blueprint for overhauling the Annapolis government.

Finally, late last summer, the governor caved in and named Mr. Butta, the former chief of C&P Telephone Co., to head a blue-ribbon panel on "efficiency and economy in government." But the governor's underlings dragged their feet: the panel didn't meet till September. It had to do a hurry-up job on a preliminary report for December.

Given the short time frame, this report is an eye-opener. It identifies at least $60 million in savings that can be achieved simply by re-thinking some of government's functions. The commission promises much more fundamental and bigger cost-savings later.

LTC What the Butta panel hit upon is precisely what Marylanders want to hear. It's the kind of philosophy Annapolis politicians should have seized upon as their theme song long ago: `f government must be responsive to citizens; individual responsibility must be emphasized; most government activities should be self-supporting; and the emphasis should be prevention not crisis intervention.

In other words, let's spend tax dollars wisely. Let's run government more like a business. And let's limit government's role to programs that make a difference.

This should have been the centerpiece of last year's legislative session, with the stress on revamping government to make it cheaper and efficient. Instead, the legislature and the governor quarreled over raising taxes and then came up with some stop-gap remedies that didn't work.

So now, a year later, the preliminary Butta report is before the General Assembly, but it isn't the main event. Legislators need to come up with big-ticket cuts, something the Butta group won't address until later this year.

Yet the Butta suggestions are the nitty-gritty kinds of savings that ought to be tackled by the General Assembly this session. Like closing one of the state's hospitals for the mentally ill. Or sharply reducing tuition reimbursement subsidies at state colleges for faculty and college employees. Or dramatically raising fees for state services so the activities are self-supporting.

Other suggestions are common-sense moves that would pay off: creating an office overseeing the state's $250 million hodge-podge system of phone, computer, video and radio systems; merging duplicative systems such as the aviation and communications divisions of the state police and the natural resource police; abolishing the state Tax Court and the Board of Contract Appeals and letting the Office of Administrative Hearings take on these chores.

Why hasn't the legislature warmly embraced these ideas? For the same reason the General Assembly has ducked every controversial budget cut that has come its way in the last 15 months. Vested interests exert their powers to undermine such moves.

Shut a state hospital to consolidate operations and save costs? Mental-health advocates won't hear of it.

Halve tuition reimbursements? College administrators and professors protest, claiming such a cut would spark an exodus of talent from state universities.

Hike fees for state permits and services? Why that's un-American, claim those who would be affected.

It seems that legislators would rather please an angry interest group than do what's best for the state. Their true concern is the next election, not government efficiency.

So the Butta commission's report won't fulfill its considerable potential this session. The timing is bad. Legislators are still trying to sidestep unpopular decisions.

But the panel will be back with additional reports this spring and fall. Perhaps by then legislators will wake up to the service this commission is providing. It is devising sensible ways to make government cheaper yet better. These are ideas that should not be ignored.

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