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Avoid toll increases by shifting priorities

The Maryland Transportation Authority recently announced its intention to increase automobile tolls throughout Maryland, including a per car increase in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll from $2.50 to $8 by 2013. According to the MdTA, the justification for the increase is to provide revenue for maintaining our aging facilities. While maintaining safe infrastructure is an invaluable role of our government, further investigation reveals this to be nothing more than another case of fiscal mismanagement by our elected officials. And the numbers prove it.

Maryland's Department of Budget and Management posts Maryland's operating budget online. If more Marylanders knew how their money was spent, elected officials would behave differently; a well-informed electorate is the greatest weapon against wasteful spending.

Maryland's budget is divided into several categories, including public safety, transportation, higher education, human resources, public debt and other. The problem is with how elected officials allocate funding. Hidden within our $34 billion budget are priorities that are difficult to defend.

Our 2012 state budget is $34 billion, the largest in Maryland's history. Since last year, while our economy remained in recession, our budget grew by 6 percent. Since 2008, state spending has grown by more than $4 billion, but funding for transportation and public safety have decreased by $450 million and $20 million, respectively. (Also since 2008, funding for natural resources is down 12 percent, and funding growth for elementary education has not kept pace with inflation.)

Maryland has record spending, record spending growth and record tax rates — yet our elected officials claim not to have money to maintain our roads and bridges, or for public safety, natural resource projects or even elementary education. So where does all the money go?

Since 2008, Maryland's spending on health (primarily driven by Medicaid) and human resources (primarily assistance to lower-income families) has increased by more than $3 billion, or 34 percent. While providing services for low-income Marylanders is certainly noble, if we could provide the same services for lower costs, funds would be available for transportation, public safety, natural resources and elementary education, without relying on tax increases.

To put health and human resources growth in context: If their growth since 2008 was just 11/2 times the rate of inflation, Maryland would enjoy a $1.8 billion surplus, and toll increases and cuts to transportation and public safety would be unnecessary. For lessons in controlling costs without compromising quality, Maryland could learn some lessons from the Hoosier State.

I've discussed these issues with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He believes, as I do, that state government should be limited, active in service and highly effective. But resources are finite. Constantly increasing taxes, tolls and fees on Maryland families is not the answer. Governor Daniels has proven the secret to controlling costs while maintaining excellent service is to trust citizens to make more of their own decisions.

Much attention has been focused on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's elimination of collective bargaining power for state workers. Governor Daniels enacted similar legislation in Indiana six years ago. Employees were also given the choice to opt out of union representation if they felt it was not in their best interests, and the vast majority of state employees have done so. Since then, spending on state employees is down, but employee compensation has increased. And the average time for a visit to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles? About eight minutes. Giving state employees more control over their careers has resulted in higher pay for employees, lower cost for taxpayers, and demonstrably improved service for citizens.

When it comes to collective bargaining, unions can serve an important role. But we should all oppose monopolies, and we should all oppose coercion. Unions must be held accountable to their members, and the greatest way to do so is to make union membership voluntary. If Maryland adopted such policies, all Marylanders, including our more than 70,000 state employees, would stand to gain. Instead, regrettably, our state has lately been moving in the opposite direction; under the Fair Share Act, passed in 2009, state workers who are not union members will be forced to pay fees.

Governor Daniels has also proven the best way to control escalating medical costs is to give all citizens, from state employees to those receiving public assistance, more control over their health spending. Participation in Health Savings Accounts in Indiana is at record levels, which has led to a decrease in emergency room visits, an increase in the amount of generic drugs used, and health care cost increases that track inflation. Compare that to Maryland, where health spending since last year increased more than 10 percent.

The majority of our state employees are excellent at their jobs, and they should be rewarded. Instead, they are forced to subsidize those who don't share their values or their work ethic. At the same time, if low-income Marylanders were given control over their health decisions, we would have plentiful funding for our shared priorities — including transportation, public safety, and even natural resources and elementary education.

Maryland is not suffering from a lack of toll receipts at our bridges and tunnels. We are suffering from a lack of imagination and limited choices for state residents. Instead of constantly passing more taxes and fees on to Maryland families, we should encourage innovation in our state government and in state programs. That's an infrastructure project on which we can all agree.

Brian H. Murphy is a former Republican candidate for governor of Maryland. His email is bhmurphy@plimhimmon.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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