The Power Of Suggestion

Our View: Gov. O'malley Is Getting A Truckload Of Ideas For Saving Maryland Money From Ordinary Citizens, But He Missed A Chance For Real Dialogue About The Budget

August 10, 2009

Someone from Allegany County wrote in with a detailed suggestion for reducing the number of trips corrections employees take to transfer files from one prison to another. "It may not save much, but every little bit helps," the person wrote. Someone in Harford County advocated going to a four-day workweek for all state employees. Someone in Baltimore pitched an early retirement plan for state workers. And, not to traffic in regional stereotypes, but someone from Montgomery County insisted on higher income tax rates before the state cuts a penny from the social safety net.

Those are a handful of the nearly 600 pages of responses Gov. Martin O'Malley had received in his suggestion box for ways to save the state government money as of late last week. (The cut-off for submitting ideas is today; the Web site to send in your idea is www.gov.state.md.us/budgetcuts.asp.) Having just cut $280 million from the budget and faced with the need to cut $400 million more by the end of the month, and probably a good bit more than that next year, Mr. O'Malley can use all the help he can get.

The ideas are often well thought out and detailed. They make good reading, but, unfortunately, you won't be able to see them if you go to the governor's Web site. Though he professes a commitment to transparent government, Mr. O'Malley's set up the page so that the suggestions aren't posted online. The governor's office provided The Baltimore Sun with a four-page sampling of the suggestions that came in on July 29, and it promises to make the entire list public once it is completed and categorized, probably later this week.

But that will be too late to serve the greater purpose of allowing citizens the chance for an unfettered dialogue about how the state is spending its money. One of the great strengths of the Internet is its interactivity, the opportunity for give and take and exchange of ideas. As it is, the governor's office has put a high-tech gloss on an old way to get input. If the administration was apprehensive that the people who posted suggestions would be unruly or rude or make Mr. O'Malley look bad, that fear appears to have been unfounded - assuming the suggestions his office released are, in fact, a random sampling. They are generally constructive and respectful.

When the administration does release the list of suggestions, it should accompany them with a platform for people to discuss the ideas and offer more of their own. The exercise shouldn't be a one-time effort to find savings but the basis for an on-going evaluation of the state government.

During the next six months, as the governor forms his budget proposal for the next fiscal year, he should compile a report showing what became of those ideas. Citizens should know exactly which of their ideas are being adopted and how much they're projected to save. Not only would that show that the process was more than window dressing but it would also convey the enormity of the budget challenge Maryland faces. The writer from Allegany County is right that every little bit helps, but Maryland is facing a budget shortfall next year that could hit $1.5 billion, and fixing that is going to require choices much more painful than closing state offices early to save on energy costs. Mr. O'Malley is bound to find that the more he brings ordinary Marylanders into the process of solving the problem, the more receptive they'll be when asked to make sacrifices.

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