Reform, Not Lip Service

May 12, 1994

When Gov. William Donald Schaefer took office in 1987, he embraced a large challenge: to reform the delivery of social services so the millions spent in Maryland actually improve the lives of children and families who need government help.

With a boost from the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- which, this summer, moves its headquarters to Baltimore -- Maryland has made great strides in coordinating the various departments, agencies and programs that provide services ranging from foster care to mental health services to special educational placements.

Now, in Governor Schaefer's last year, he threatens to stop this progress mid-stream by vetoing legislation that requires departments to commit themselves to the kind of reform that really matters -- sharing their funding. The proposal would change the way social services funds are allocated to local jurisdictions, creating pools of money so that services can be tailored to meet specific situations. The departments already use a modified version of pooled funding. But the current system stops short of real reform. The money comes with strings attached, requiring strict accounting back to each state-level department.

While departmental secretaries praise the coordination and leadership provided by the Governor's Office of Children, Youth and Families, some of them protest that pooled funding would rob them of the control they need to meet various mandates required by federal and state laws and regulations. The problem with this argument is simple: In most cases, state departments don't meet these mandates -- it's the local jurisdictions that actually see that mandates are carried out.

"Mandates" are a convenient whipping post in this debate. Governor Schaefer has reportedly decided to veto the legislation because it contains "a mandate." But if that's his problem with the social services bill, why did he sign legislation binding future governors to mandates requiring that money for arts and tourism promotion be included in all future state budgets?

Social services dollars are scarce enough that no taxpayer wants to see them wasted. But that's exactly what happens when a child with severe disabilities cannot be brought home from an expensive out-of-state residential placement because dollars earmarked for disabilities programs can't be shifted to provide coaching and occasional respite care for parents who are willing to keep the child at home.

Maryland has come too far in the Schaefer administration for the governor now to embrace a pigeon-hole bureaucratic mentality rather than real reform.

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