Cutting fluff from government

February 01, 1993

As a sop to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the man heading his commission on efficiency and economy in government has been politely mentioning that his group found no "waste" in its study of the Maryland bureaucracy. After $2 billion worth of budget cuts in three years, the governor was in no mood to be told that more waste remained.

So J. Henry Butta unveiled a report last week for his commission that talks not of waste but of streamlining and restructuring. Semantics aside, the Butta panel still found plenty of fluff and other unnecessary spending: over $150 million worth of immediate savings and many times that amount in long-range changes to government programs.

Surprisingly, the response to the Butta panel's report has been cool. Legislators were miffed they weren't consulted in advance. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell has his nose bent out of joint by the commission's finding that consolidations he's pushing won't save much money. Lawmakers aren't happy that some Butta recommendations entail taking on special interests. The last thing legislators want is a tough fight.

Still, the merits of the Butta report cannot be denied. The group has laid out a blueprint on how to save dollars now being spent needlessly. Why, for instance, should state troopers be allowed to use their state cars for personal use? Forty-two states ban that practice, which is costing taxpayers $300,000 a year that could easily be saved.

Why not reform the state's antiquated personnel system? It is 70 years old and badly in need of an overhaul. It is also overstaffed: Maryland's personnel department has more than twice as many employees as most other states -- one for every 85 state workers. In the private sector, the ratio is one for 153 workers. Virtually every aspect of the personnel system is a mess, the commission found. It needs to be revamped in a way that provides better training, rewards good performances and gives departments more power to hire and fire workers. The downsizing of the central personnel office could save at least $4 million a year.

And why not cut out duplicative and costly health-care services, establish sensible user fees for health-care programs for those who can afford to pay and crack down on Medicaid costs by stressing managed care of patients? These steps could save $51 to $56 million almost immediately.

Legislators are reluctant to act, but that should not stop the governor from implementing many commission suggestions administratively. Another 40 ideas will require legislative consent. If lawmakers are serious about saving taxpayers money, they ought to approve these bills. Mr. Butta and his panel are committed to making Annapolis more efficient and less costly. Now the question is: Do legislators share the commission's concern?

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