Taxing Questions For Voters

October 09, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

"Thin is in," proclaims Mike Lane, The Evening Sun's cartoonist. In one of his deft assessments of the political landscape, wraith-like creatures labeled "government" and "taxes" parade before an admiring electorate.

Trouble is, there's a difference between well-toned trimness and anorexia. This election season, it's not always clear voters care about the distinction. But candidates should -- after all, they are the ones who have to live up to voter expectations.

Regardless of who becomes Maryland's next governor, it's clear citizens want more value for their tax dollars. The question is how to get efficient, non-flabby government without producing the bureaucratic equivalent of an eating disorder. That question is being addressed at all levels of government, here and around the country. In Maryland, there are some useful lessons in recent efforts to reform the delivery of social services.

Because they don't provide direct benefits to broad sections of the population, as do roads or sanitation services or schools, social services programs are always a potential target for taxpayer impatience. But because these programs deal with people in need of help, they have a large bearing on the quality of life in this state, now and in the future.

Time and again, research shows that when children and families don't get the assistance they need early in life, society pays the price later on. But the challenge of getting good value for tax dollars spent is not unlike that facing a dieter. You can crash diet, and get quick, dramatic results. The question is: Will they last?

The tougher approach aims for strong discipline and steady results over the long haul. It's a less dramatic approach, but it stands a better chance of instilling the good habits that produce real change.

In Maryland, social services programs geared toward helping children and young families have been on a gradual but steady road toward reform. It hasn't been dramatic, and it hasn't always been easy to go against ingrained habits and attitudes. But it has produced results.

Voters deserve to know what the candidates for governor think about the social services reform initiatives already under way in state government.

A case in point: Cabinet secretaries can talk a good game about cooperating with each other in providing services, but it took a major battle in the General Assembly this year to get legislation enacted that would require them to pool their dollars.

Pooled funding is an important way of giving more control to the local agencies that actually provide the services. The idea is to allow the people working with families to make decisions about the mix of services that would be most effective in particular situations, rather than having to fit a bureaucratic formula for how money should be spent. It means, though, that cabinet secretaries and other officials must be willing to give up control of part of their budgets -- not always an easy thing to do.

Would the candidates support this movement toward requiring pooled funding and allowing more decision-making power at the local level?

Another question: Would they support a unified agency for children and family services? Under the current system, it's common for children and families to use services from more than one agency -- and to get tangled up in a lot of bureaucratic red tape.

For instance, a child in special education classes who also gets mental health services and is in foster care is already dealing with three major state agencies -- the departments of Education, Health and Mental Hygiene and Human Resources. Wouldn't it be more efficient and effective if they could get these services under one roof?

If the candidates support this idea, how would they ensure that in bringing these services together they would truly restructure the way government delivers services, rather than simply consolidate existing bureaucracies?

And most important: How would they hold their administrations accountable for the results of social services program?

The challenge facing government is not just to rearrange the furniture, but to re-imagine the way it delivers services. Unless some hard work goes into this part of the equation, slashing the cost of government will simply mean abandoning many of government's traditional roles -- and that means a lot of people will get hurt.

A crash diet for state government? Just remember, it's easy to change things. It's much harder to reform old, ingrained habits and make the changes stick.

Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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