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Fresh eyes on the budget [Editorial]

It's tempting to dismiss Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's proposals to reduce state spending on the basis of his spectacularly bad idea of eliminating the state prosecutor's office. Getting rid of the one semi-independent actor in Maryland's political establishment with the power to investigate public corruption is exactly the wrong thing to do. However, the rest of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate's plan includes a number of thoughtful observations about Maryland's $38 billion budget and some sensible approaches to making it more efficient.

Mr. Gansler, despite his position as a state-wide elected official, is seeking to position himself as outside the Maryland Democratic establishment in this race. He is certainly more so than Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who has been endorsed by a huge swath of the party firmament, from Bill Clinton on down, though less so than Democratic Del. Heather Mizeur or, certainly, any of the Republican candidates. As such, Mr. Gansler occupies a unique position in the race as a candidate who does not appear to believe Marylanders want to shift the state significantly to the right or the left but who also doesn't think they're eager for a third term of the O'Malley administration either.

The upshot, when it comes to his analysis this week of the state budget, is that he points squarely at some of the shortcomings of Gov. Martin O'Malley's fiscal stewardship and offers a generally common-sense list of approaches for reducing spending and closing tax loopholes. Whether or not a Governor Gansler would actually be able to produce $1.5 billion in savings or new revenue over four years, his proposals reflect the value of bringing a fresh perspective to the state budget.

Mr. Gansler is quite right to criticize the O'Malley administration for its reliance on general obligation bonds to indirectly help cover operating expenses. Mr. O'Malley has routinely paid for things like open space land acquisition through borrowing rather than paying cash and has used the cash that was collected for that purpose instead to fill holes in the operating budget. The strategy may have had its place in the depths of the financial crisis, but it has become a habit, and the result will be higher debt service payments for years to come. Mr. Gansler is wrong to imply that Governor O'Malley didn't work to constrain spending growth — he did. But the attorney general is right that there's much more that could be done.

The top of Mr. Gansler's list is the particularly un-sexy idea of procurement reform. Maryland spends billions a year to buy goods and services, and the state is overdue for a re-evaluation of its procedures and rules to make sure it handles procurement as efficiently and transparently as possible. Mr. Gansler is proposing greater centralization of the process and the creation of a cabinet-level procurement department, an idea he says has generated significant savings in other states. The next-biggest item on his list is to explore means to reduce the population of non-violent offenders in prison, another worthy idea when coupled with his proposals to beef up re-entry services and reduce recidivism. The rest of the proposal is mainly a mix of following up on findings by Maryland's own auditors and copying ideas that have helped other states reduce spending. Some of it is a little vague — like an efficiency review that he postulates would save $164 million over four years — but mainly it looks not only sensible but achievable.

Unfortunately, the idea of eliminating the state prosecutor may fall into the category of achievable but not sensible. The state's powers-that-be aren't likely to mourn the loss of an independent office charged with prosecuting political corruption and campaign finance violations, but voters certainly should. Mr. Gansler says the office is redundant because others — such as the attorney general's office, state's attorneys or the U.S. attorney — also have the authority to investigate and prosecute those crimes, and in cases where that wouldn't be appropriate, the legislature can appoint a special counsel. That sounds great in theory, but in a one-party state like Maryland, it fails in practice. Given his complaints about the legislature's lackluster efforts to hold anyone accountable for the botched roll-out of the Maryland health insurance exchange, Mr. Gansler, of all people, should know that. Saving $1.2 million by cutting the state prosecutor's office would come at too steep a price.

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