Costly Habits in Annapolis

July 19, 1992

The latest recommendations on making state government more efficient -- and more effective -- illustrate how easy it is for giant bureaucracies to fall into expensive habits. Maryland is spending tens of millions of tax dollars needlessly.

J. Henry Butta, who chairs the governor's commission on government efficiency, places the savings from the panel's latest recommendations at $60 million. That's a conservative guess.

Take, for instance, something as minor as inter-departmental mail. Over the years, many agencies have created their own courier services. More than 30 of them. All devouring taxpayer dollars. Sending a one-ounce letter from Baltimore to Annapolis by government courier costs $44! The Butta group's suggestion: use the Postal Service, instead. Spend 29 cents instead of $44. That saves $1.2 million, with added savings if facsimile machines and electronic mail are used.

This same type of thoughtless spending was uncovered elsewhere: a lack of energy-efficient lighting in state buildings; little thought given to energy conservation in new projects; no volume discounts on $120 million in products bought independently by agencies; using expensive police officers instead of private security guards to patrol buildings, and using expensive custodians instead of cheaper private services to clean buildings.

It should be relatively easy for Gov. William Donald Schaefer to privatize housekeeping and security tasks, and to make energy cost-savings a top priority. The state's continuing budget crunch also should give impetus to the Butta recommendations.

But there are some political hot potatoes. The panel makes a strong case for getting the state out of the chronic nursing care business. Only two facilities remain, in Hagerstown and Salisbury. Either selling them or hiring an outside manager would save $3 million and still ensure good patient care. Yet local politicians will object.

Legislators may be equally sensitive to the proposal for a new tax on meals served in Ocean City to pay the state's share of beach replenishment. And many lawmakers will be unhappy with a plan to hike fees and licenses to make the natural resources agency self-sustaining.

These recommendations should be warmly embraced. Annapolis needs to privatize government where it makes sense; rely more heavily on user fees; share costs with the federal government and private insurers where possible and, for goodness sakes, get rid of the exorbitant operating expenses that wouldn't be tolerated in private industry.

Mr. Butta's panel should be commended for its insightful report. A final list of recommendations is due by the end of the year. Officials in the State House would be foolish to ignore them. The public is clamoring for less costly, smaller and more efficient government. Are the governor and legislators listening?

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