Annapolis' privatization joke

February 25, 1993

Remember the privatization craze? Every politician was saying how wonderful this would be for taxpayers: Government would get out of businesses that are better and more cheaply handled by the private sector. But when faced with the cold reality of these moves, officials in Annapolis have turned the privatization movement into a joke.

Exhibit No. 1: Two gubernatorial commissions recommended in the last year that the state either sell or lease its chronic-care hospitals. These are primarily nursing homes -- a field of health care better left to the private sector. Private operators have already voiced interest in these hospitals in Salisbury and Hagerstown. The state could either sell them outright or bring in an outside operator. Either way, the Schaefer administration says it will see that all patients receive quality care.

But the House Environmental Matters Committee would have none of it. Parochial concerns won out over the interests of the taxpayers. Instead of saving $3 million a year, the committee was more interested in catering to the state employee unions and rural legislators from these regions. The benefits of privatization were never even given a fair hearing.

Exhibit No. 2: A proposal to create a new arrangement for managing and marketing BWI Airport is getting the back of the hand from the Schaefer administration. Yet even the governor's own privatization task force said the airport "does not have enough flexibility in management decision-making to respond quickly to rapid changes in the industry. In addition, a stronger emphasis on public/private partnerships to promote economic development is warranted."

Problems at BWI are mounting: the airport is losing a key overseas airline, KLM, because of dissatisfaction with the state's operation; construction of a much-needed international terminal has been postponed, and the state's private negotiations with airline maverick Frank Lorenzo have angered BWI's most important tenant, USAir.

There must be a better way to run an airport.

Leaders in Annapolis are giving lip service to the concept of privatization. The administration's one large-scale effort -- turning the Hickey School for troubled juveniles over to a private operator -- didn't work out. That seems to have cooled enthusiasm. Yet voters expect elected officials to do more than simply defend the inefficiencies and rising expenses of the status quo. Inaction on privatization is one reason the public looks upon State House doings so cynically.

We continue to believe that privatization, while not a panacea, offers some creative options for improving the delivery of services to Marylanders. Judging from the lethargic response in Annapolis, elected officials disagree. We think they are wrong.

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