Among the ideas floating out of the State House for closing Maryland's $1.6 billion budget gap, consolidating some agencies sounds pretty appealing. After all, the distinction between the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment is probably lost on most Marylanders anyway, and a lot of people probably have never even heard of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, so why not merge it in with the Department of Education?
In reality, these agencies do different things, but there is good reason to think they could do them more efficiently — and better — together than they do apart. The Maryland Higher Education Commission, or MHEC, sets policy for post-secondary education in Maryland, though it does not directly run any colleges or universities, much in the same way that the Department of Education oversees autonomous local school districts. Since Maryland is increasingly focused on education as a pre-kindergarten through post-graduate continuum and a key component to its economic development strategy, putting those agencies under one roof makes sense.
And the boundary between the roles of the Department of Natural Resources and Department of the Environment has always been fuzzy. The DNR deals with state parks, hunting, fishing and boating but also with a variety of Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs. The Department of the Environment regulates industrial pollution, land management, mining, wetlands and storm water runoff, among other things. But their missions substantially overlap. Particularly as the state faces aggressive Chesapeake cleanup goals from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, having the two agencies under unified leadership makes sense.
When people talk about making government more efficient, this is probably what they have in mind. But the example is also illustrative of how much more it's going to take to deal with Maryland's budget problem. If, as a result of this move, the state could eliminate MHEC and the Department of the Environment altogether, it wouldn't come close to closing the budget gap, and the reality is the efficiencies to be created are much more modest — the elimination of some central office staff but not much more.
That's why the O'Malley administration is talking about doing the one thing it has strenuously resisted so far: cutting classroom education.
Maryland's high-quality public schools are a great competitive advantage, and the gains made in recent years in places like Baltimore City are too fragile to survive the kind of budget slashing that other state agencies have experienced in recent years. It is a testament to the state's priorities that during good times and bad over the last eight years, Maryland has invested record amounts into K-12 education. It would be a mistake to reverse that now.
But that doesn't mean education can or should be held harmless from all cuts, as Baltimore school board President Neil Duke pleaded recently, much less that funding for schools should be substantially increased, as Prince George's County Superintendent William R. Hite suggested. A reduction of 5 percent across the board, as the O'Malley administration is considering, would take state per-pupil spending slightly below where it was in the 2009-2010 school year. That would certainly have an impact, given the rising cost of health insurance, utilities and other expenses, but not a catastrophic one.
But it could be quite helpful to the state. Because state spending on education has grown so rapidly in recent years (including the last two, when it was propped up by federal stimulus funds at a time when other agencies' budgets shrank), a 5 percent cut in education spending could solve about 20 percent of the state's budget shortfall all by itself.
The governor and legislature should work to minimize the disruption to what has, deservedly, been the state's top priority. But the level of sacrifice being contemplated for school districts — even if they are also forced to absorb some of the cost of teacher pensions — pales next to what other state agencies, or, for that matter, the private sector, have endured.
As the administration finalizes its budget proposal this month, it should do all it can to squeeze cost savings out of the state government by making it more efficient and focused, as consolidating the education and environmental agencies would do. Cutting funding for classroom education should be a last resort, and the state should certainly consider where it ranks in our priorities next to, say, keeping some of the lowest alcohol tax rates in the nation. But we have reached a point where extraordinary measures will be required to put the state on a path of sustainable spending, and we shouldn't foreclose the possibility that education would share part of the burden.