Promise to retool proves elusive

Mandel panel has plenty of ideas to cut government, but results are lacking

Minor budget reductions made

April 20, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

State police officers marched into the hearing room with a firm demand: Don't merge the Maryland Natural Resources Police with our agency. Lawmakers listened, and the idea eventually died.

The scene inside the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis last month reflected some of the complications underlying Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s promise to make state government leaner and more efficient.

With the 2004 session of the Maryland General Assembly concluding last week without new taxes or expanded gambling, Ehrlich and his fiscal aides are looking for ways to chop the $830 million projected deficit that awaits them next year.

Deep cuts are expected in local government assistance, but the administration says it wants efficiency savings as well.

"We will continue to follow best practices," the governor said as the session drew to a close. "We will continue to restructure our Cabinet agencies."

Scores of ideas for improving agency operations are sitting on the governor's desk. But it is unclear whether they will ever be adopted and, if they are, whether they will produce the intended results.

The one or two that have surfaced - such as combining Natural Resources Police with another agency - generated resistance.

Last summer, Ehrlich announced with great fanfare that he was appointing former Gov. Marvin Mandel to head a commission to retool Maryland government, the fulfillment of a campaign promise.

Mandel rushed through the work in about four months and in secrecy, with commission members complaining they didn't have enough time for a thorough analysis. Meetings weren't advertised; documents were hard to come by.

The report - devoid of dollar figures or estimated savings - was completed in December, in time for Ehrlich to digest the ideas and prepare legislation to implement them.

That didn't happen. Instead, the governor proposed a state budget that was nearly 9 percent bigger than the previous year's plan, and the legislature adopted it after making minor reductions.

"This campaign myth that there was a cocktail party of spending by government has proven to be just that: a myth," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee. "The Mandel Commission is being ignored, and, in fact, we are going in the opposite direction. We are adding entities to state government, such as the Office of Disabilities. It's the opposite of what Republican ideology claims: State government has gotten bigger."

Mandel's report contains 125 pages of ideas and recommendations, from the elimination of the state Board of Contract Appeals to the consolidation of several disparate agency police forces into a single unit. Virtually none of them has been adopted.

One victory

This month, the governor announced the enactment of one of the proposals: The Maryland Natural Resources Police, the officers who patrol state waterways and track wildlife poachers, would be combined with forest and park service rangers.

The Natural Resources Police had opposed the move; they preferred to be combined with state police, and introduced legislation to accomplish that. The bill was the subject of the heated hearing in Annapolis that revealed complications with both alternatives, and it was ultimately killed.

"What DNR folks thought was going to be a fairly smooth move turned out to be a logistical nightmare," said Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican and member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that killed the bill. "This was coming too fast."

Ehrlich went ahead with his original plan through a memorandum of understanding, but feelings remain bruised. The lack of impact of the work of Mandel's Commission on the Structure and Efficiency of State Government demonstrates a continuation of Maryland's middling effort at government streamlining.

`Managing for results'

Since the late 1990s, the state has used a "managing for results" program as part of its budget, where agencies set outcome measures and try to meet them.

But auditors have found flaws in the process, and a law was passed this year to refine the technique.

Even with the Mandel findings available, the state's budget and management secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., was so hungry for improvements in state agencies that he requested $1 million this year for private management consultants to examine state operations.

"We feel that the state would benefit from private sector practices and an independent review," DiPaula said. The General Assembly disagreed and cut the money.

Officials insist that much of the Mandel efficiency report could still become reality and that more progress will come with the General Assembly out of town until January.

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