Now that both House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Gov. William Donald Schaefer are looking for ways to reduce government spending dramatically, momentum seems to be building for a sweeping overhaul of state government. But before any moves are made, leaders in Annapolis need to answer a fundamental question: Given the budget constraints of the 1990s, how limited a role should state government play in the lives of Marylanders?
Mr. Mitchell, in coming forth with a flurry of ideas for cutting long-term costs, talked of making "structural changes." Government no longer can be all things to all people. It does not have the resources to offer programs to all segments of society. It has to become more selective in focusing its spending on people with the greatest need, or on programs that promise the biggest long-term return for Maryland.
So far, Annapolis leaders have nibbled around the edges. But the basic thrust of Big Government on the state level hasn't changed. The bureaucracy has been diminished only marginally. Localities still clamor for Annapolis to rescue them with a new potful of cash.
That sort of mind-set must stop. The limited tax revenues coming into the state treasury dictate a radically different approach. Leaders ought to determine what programs warrant funding, and then sharply reduce the rest.
This may sound harsh, but it is a recognition of painful truths in today's anemic economy. State activities that businesses can safely perform ought to be privatized, or turned over to non-profit groups. BWI Airport is a prime target, but there are many other agencies of government that could easily be operated as efficiently (if not more so) by the private sector.
Aid to localities probably will have to be re-examined, with a lower level of funding for all subdivisions except those that are truly impoverished. Education aid that most local governments have used simply to boost teachers' pay may have to be reduced. More user-fees should be initiated, and more state programs should be required to raise as much revenue as they spend. Major departments with overlapping functions should be merged; others should be abolished or severely diminished in size. The bureaucracy should be cut substantially as the focus of state government narrows.
With Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller suddenly singing from the same hymn book, they can start talking about fundamental changes. Maryland faces a $500 million deficit this fiscal year, and the governor hopes to have a budget-balancing plan in place by Sept. 15. That could set the stage for a special General Assembly this fall to approve a consensus proposal that truly begins to downsize state government in a creative way. The state's future depends upon it.