Legislative hypocrites

February 03, 1993

Remember all that campaign sloganeering by incumbent state legislators about cutting the fat out of state budgets?

Remember all that loud rhetoric about downsizing government, making it efficient and self-supporting?

Remember how lawmakers said they would demand that the governor privatize aspects of government where the private sector could do the same job better and at less cost?

They didn't mean a word of it.

How else do you explain the run-for-cover, status-quo approach of state legislators when confronted with proposals to downsize, privatize and make government programs self-supporting?

Look at what happened in just one day of hearings this week:

* At one hearing, lawmakers pounced on health secretary Nelson J. Sabatini for daring to propose that two long-term care hospitals no longer be run by the government. "You and I are at war," said Sen. Donald Munson of Washington County. Said Del. Samuel Q. Johnson of Wicomico County, "a lot of us are going to fight" to keep the two rural hospitals in state hands.

Why? Two separate state commissions have concluded that it makes no sense for Annapolis to run these chronic-care facilities in Hagerstown and Salisbury. It would be far cheaper and far better for patients to turn over the operation of these hospitals to a private medical concern.

Yet when it comes time to stand up to interest groups opposed to this move, many legislators suddenly lose their nerve.

* At another hearing, members of a budget committee verbally objected to a series of fee increases proposed by the Butta commission on efficiency in government. The feeling was that any new fee amounted to a tax hike.

Yet there's a huge difference between a user fee and a general tax on sales or income. Greater reliance on user fees decreases the likelihood of a general tax increase. Why should taxpayers in general pay $26 million to patch potholes created by dump trucks? Doesn't it make more sense to have the dump truck operators pay higher fees? Shouldn't the cost of beehive inspections be fully paid for by fees on beekeepers? Shouldn't the Motor Vehicle Administration be totally self-sustaining through motor vehicle fees?

The level of hypocrisy in the State House is appalling. If legislators are serious about lowering the cost of government to the average taxpayer, they must be willing to make hard decisions. So far, our craven lawmakers haven't shown they have the political courage to get the job done.

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