This gimmick is too much

Frank A. DeFilippo

April 30, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

WILLIAM Donald Schaefer governs by guts and gimmicks.

The evidence of his guts is all around us: the Inner Harbor, those needle-nosed buildings and mirrored hotels, the National Aquarium, the new ballpark at Camden Yards.

So, too, do the gimmicks abound. Remember Baltimore's Best, Pink Positive, Maryland Momentum, Maryland You Are Beautiful and everyone's personal favorite, that mantra of motion, Do It Now?

Recall also Mr. Schaefer's funny hats, his googly-eyed glasses and the current television commercial of the governor in artist's smock and beret asking senior citizens to submit their handicraft to a state-sponsored arts fair.

Comes now the latest endeavor to get our attention, the "Maryland Care-A-Van."

Against a social backdrop of voter frustration and anger, with his personal popularity at rock-bottom (if we are to believe the polls) and a new round of tax increases about to pick Marylanders' pockets, Mr. Schaefer is taking his administration on the road to "show the citizens of Maryland that their government cares about their needs and problems."

The roadshow, as outlined by the governor in a memo to his cabinet members, is the product of the Maryland Marketing Roundtable, an organization of government marketing professionals whom Schaefer challenged to devise a way to "get that message out" that Maryland cares. Hence the clever title.

The idea is simple enough. According to the memo, over the next several months, the roundtable will be leading a delegation of state employees representing every state agency to each of the 23 counties and Baltimore City. A one-day exhibition will be held in each subdivision at a public place, and every agency of state government will operate a booth. The first Care-A-Van lurched into Cumberland last week.

Each cabinet secretary has been instructed to designate a senior staff member to coordinate the agency's involvement. And to minimize expenses, the Maryland Department of Transportation is providing a bus and a truck to convey people and displays to the staging areas.

Perhaps the most relevant sentence fragment in the memo is this: ". . . that each person in state government provides and [sic) important and valuable service worthy of their tax dollar."

So it is fair to ask, grammatical error aside, that after more than $1 billion in budget cuts, 94 days of grueling debate over the budget, the largest package of new taxes in Maryland history, the prospect of an unbalanced budget next year: Is a traveling sideshow of state employees the most effective and efficient method of convincing taxpayers that their dollars are being put to good use?

The Maryland Care-A-Van program is bursting with unintended consequences, most of them bad. State employees are often bum-rapped, sometimes abused. Care-A-Van is an example of both. They're the ones who'll be taking the heat for goofing off during working hours and wasting taxpayers' money on sappy projects and displays that only serve as irritants and further reminders of government waste and inefficiency.

What's more, people in malls on Saturday afternoons are looking for bargains and not for a government booth displaying pictures of welfare families or budget-busting pie charts and line graphs. With anti-government fervor running high, people don't want to be reminded of government during their quality time. They've had enough, already. Even Schaefer insiders believe the Care-A-Van idea is ill-conceived and ill-timed, coming so soon after a meandering, ugly session of the General Assembly.

Moreover, here is Governor Schaefer rejecting his own advise. The governor preaches efficiency and economy in government but provides disruptions and distractions by diverting high-priced state employees to goofy projects such as Care-A-Van.

Think of all those state employees who are deployed to some suburban mall with placards and fair booths and happy-face buttons -- but who should be in state offices processing unemployment checks, welfare benefits, Medicaid payments, fishing licenses, education funds, auto registration applications, tax refunds and air and water pollution violation notices. Get the picture?

And remember that the memo says that "the point of this project is to convey the fact that state government represents caring, service and value."

Underline value. Putting state employees on display like mannequins in malls reminds the electorate of exactly the opposite. The primal scream these days is for accountability. The public believes tax dollars are pouring down a giant sinkhole called government.

"I'm excited about this project," Mr. Schaefer says in the memo. "With everyone's cooperation, it can be productive and beneficial to our citizens." Lacking the money to do much else, the governor at least has the wit to put on a good circus.

But if it's getting the message out that's bothering Mr. Schaefer, not to worry. The message is out. And the people have rejected it.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes here every other Thursday on state politics.

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