Ford vs. Benton -- Who's Right?

December 15, 1993

We may never know who is really responsible for the state's failure to pay health-care bills for state workers. But the ramifications are being felt by workers, who face steep new premiums, and state government, which must dig deep in its shallow fiscal pockets. Two top officials, meanwhile, are shouting angrily at one another.

Budget secretary Charles Benton puts the onus on Hilda Ford's personnel department; Mrs. Ford, in turn, calls Mr. Benton a liar who has connived for years to gain control of the health insurance program. In the midst of this family dispute sits the once-proud papa, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who must be embarrassed by this public airing of his clan's differences.

In one sense, it is surprising this quarrel would go public. Both Mr. Benton and Mrs. Ford are true Schaefer loyalists. They worked for him as mayor, then moved with him to Annapolis. They have earned his trust. But in another sense, such divisions can be expected. Years of recessionary budgets and cabinet rivalry have officials on edge. In the waning months of the Schaefer era, other internal disputes could break into the open.

These two adversaries view their duties quite differently. Mrs. Ford believes her job is to carry out orders -- without asking questions. Mr. Benton has a well-deserved reputation for pulling financial rabbits out of a seeingly empty hat for Mr. Schaefer. This often means juggling accounts, which can ruffle departmental feathers.

Each blames the other for the health-insurance debacle. The two of them can make valid-sounding arguments in their favor. But the governor has no desire to launch an inquiry. He may be furious about this costly faux pas but he's mainly concerned with resolving the problem.

There's blame to go around. Mr. Benton's shop was unaware of this crisis as it grew over the years, even though his office is responsible for the state's fiscal affairs. Mrs. Ford's shop never blew the whistle when unpaid health-care bills mounted.

The lesson from this episode is that both personnel and budget officials have to be more diligent in spotting problem areas in the state's large health-insurance program. A cooperative attitude between departments might have averted a crisis. Then there wouldn't be any finger-pointing or frantic budget-juggling to cover what could become a nine-digit deficit.

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