Assembly rejects tips to streamline government Lobbyists, fees do in Butta report

April 12, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

Remember the Butta Commission? The 11-member panel unveiled a multitude of recommendations in January to bring economy and efficiency to state government.

But the General Assembly rejected nearly all the proposals.

Special-interest lobbying, turf fights, competing bills and a distaste for the politically harmful word "fees" joined forces to dump more than 15 months of work by the panel.

"Frankly I'm shocked and quite appalled and just a little bit angry," said J. Henry Butta, the retired Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. executive who headed the panel. "The legislature said they just weren't interested."

The Commission on Economy and Efficiency in Government, appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, offered about 115 recommendations, ranging from fees on beekeepers to the revamping of the state's personnel system.

The Schaefer administration turned many of those recommendations into about 40 bills that would have brought Maryland at least $40 million in fees and administrative savings.

Fewer than a half-dozen minor bills are expected to be passed into law, including one to transfer a hazardous waste board from one state agency to another.

Nancy E. Gordon, a Schaefer aide who pushed the legislative package, dryly noted the modest achievements. "They're not bills that are going to change the face of government," she said.

Lawmakers were cool to the Butta Commission's report the moment they received it, focusing their opposition on the fees designed to pay for government services. After last year's hefty tax package, squeezing more money from constituents was not considered an option.

Not one of the fee proposals survived.

"There is a real taboo this session with increasing fees," said Del. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Vote for a fee bill and you're accused of raising taxes."

"We didn't see any need for them," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County Democrat. "What a fee is is really a tax."

And the targets of those fees appeared in droves, filling the marble hallways of the State House.

The trucking industry was able to kill a proposal to raise $26 million in fees on dump trucks to help pay for damage they cause Maryland roads.

Instead, the industry helped craft a compromise allowing dump trucks to weigh more with the tonnage spread over four axles instead of three, thereby distributing weight and causing less damage to roads. But the law won't be fully implemented for 20 years.

"That's nice," said Mr. Butta in a sarcastic tone. "The roads are there now. That's nothing as far as I'm concerned."

Then came the beekeepers, who were able to eliminate fees designed to raise $21,600 to pay for state inspections. "I didn't realize there were that many bee farmers in the state," said a downcast Ms. Gordon.

Lawmakers said the Butta Commission called for too many fees and not enough economy and efficiency.

"I think we were expecting some good cost-saving methods," said Montgomery Democrat Laurence Levitan, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the final resting place for many of the fees. "Instead we got a lot of fee bills. There was no reorganization of state government."

Such opponents, said Mr. Butta, "should read the report."

Mr. Schaefer also brushed aside the criticism, saying the General Assembly has often contended that government should self-supporting, with the costs being borne by the user.

Meanwhile, the Schaefer administration's efforts at reorganization and cost savings ran into political opposition from Mr. Mitchell and other lawmakers.

About half of the package of Butta-inspired bills involved revamping the state personnel system, including decentralizing the Department of Personnel and giving agencies greater power over hiring and firing.

Mr. Mitchell disagreed with that approach, pushing instead to downsize state government by combining the Department of Personnel with the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning. Cost savings could reach $3.5 million, he said.

But Mr. Butta said his panel placed the figure closer to $1 million. He expected "easily $20 million" in cost reductions from the administration's personnel bills.

While the administration's personnel package got nowhere, the speaker's measure passed the House -- only to die in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the House killed a commission proposal to sell two chronic-care hospitals, Western Maryland Center in Hagerstown and Deer's Head Center in Salisbury, to save millions of taxpayer dollars in administrative costs. Lawmakers said they feared a private owner would place earnings above care.

"Privatization becomes this: money, profit. I don't think [patients] would ever get the kind of care they're getting now," said Del. James E. McClellan. The Frederick County Democrat was a fierce opponent who helped defeat the measure.

Lawmakers said despite the dismal treatment of the Butta proposals, there is some hope for the commission's recommendations on the state personnel system, which will be studied this summer.

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