Privatization limps along

July 28, 1993

Like an unwanted step-child, privatization refuses to go away, but instead limps along at the back of the pack waiting for its moment of recognition. While the public generally applauds the notion of turning certain government functions over to the private sector, government officials and elected leaders in Annapolis don't want to relinquish control. So to assuage the public, special panels keep getting named to study the issue.

Already, we've had recommendations to privatize various aspects of government from the Linowes commission on tax reform (three reports), the Butta commission on efficiency in government (two separate reports) and the Hellmann commission on privatization. Each time, the recommendations were trashed by the legislature.

Now another task force is beginning work. This one, the Governor's Advisory Council on Privatization, has a more modest function. Its success, though, will still depend on the willingness of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and top lawmakers to heed the groups' suggestions.

Last spring, the governor issued an executive order to make privatization an on-going option. State agencies are to make proposals to the budget department on better ways to run programs. If these plans call for privatization, the suggestions will be turned over to the advisory council. The group will also analyze suggestions from the public to turn over more government functions to privately run organizations. Some proposals might be implemented right away, if the governor gives the go-ahead. Most, though, will require legislative approval.

So far, the legislature has been all talk and little action when it comes to actually shearing government of some of its services. When House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell pushed to sell off Baltimore-Washington International Airport, even his fellow colleagues in the House refused to go along.

Perhaps, though, the advisory council, led by Yellow Transportation president Mark L. Joseph, will have more luck with a cautious, step-at-a-time approach. Privatization has proved enormously successful in some states. Maryland lawmakers, though, have been cowed by public employee unions and their own reluctance to give up micro-management of state programs. But with an election looming on the horizon late next year, legislators may look at privatization more positively next spring. It's the advisory council's slim window of opportunity.

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