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What if They Gave a Plan to Save Money, and Nobody Came?


The sound of silence. That's what J. Henry Butta has been hearing following his commission's latest report on bringing efficiencies to state government.

Not a peep out of the governor. Nary a word from a state legislator. No public applause for the group's long list of suggested cost-savings. Instead, there's silence.

You would think Gov. William Donald Schaefer would ride this horse for all it's worth. After all, what better way to win back public approval than to embrace a report that tells how to cut the fat out of government? What a great crusade for his last two years -- the sensible downsizing of state government and the elimination of overlap, duplication and wasteful spending.

Yet no one from the governor's office is rushing to shout loudly about the Butta commission's interim report. Behind the scenes, aides are plotting strategy for legislative action, but no one is milking the favorable publicity that would flow naturally from announcing a crusade of this sort.

And what about the much-maligned General Assembly, which has sunk as low in public opinion polls as the governor? Where is the enthusiastic endorsement of the Butta recommendations? He is, after all, giving lawmakers a blueprint on how to save taxpayer dollars.

The truth is that neither the governor nor legislators really want to shrink government. From their perspectives, the bigger the better.

For the governor, Big Government means more services for the state's needy and more help for those who are hurting. Every move Mr. Schaefer makes to downsize government means fewer dollars and fewer staffers to get the job done. Besides, there's no reward for downsizing. Affected constituencies will scream loudly. Affected legislators will follow suit. And state workers will likely lose their jobs.

For a governor with just 28 months left in his stay in Annapolis, it almost isn't worth the struggle.

As for the legislature, it is equally reluctant to rush into downsizing. It means fewer programs to micro-manage, fewer workers to second-guess and fewer conveniences for their constituents, who will protest when these services are eliminated or reduced. So from their perspective, why rush to economize?

Both the governor and legislators are too intimately tied to state government to fully grasp the public clamor for lopping off unnecessary government spending. They've cut the most visible excesses -- some staff, travel, perks. But when it comes to the hard part -- slashing programs and firing workers -- no one wants to act.

There was little enthusiasm when the initial Butta recommendations came out last December. Yet during this year's assembly session, much of the panel's report was adopted -- out of necessity. Faced with a $1 billion deficit, lawmakers suddenly found most of Mr. Butta's suggestions eminently sensible.

Could the same thing happen this year? Absolutely. The current-year deficit is estimated at $200 million, and growing. So many of the interim Butta findings are nuts-and-bolts type changes that it's surprising they're being ignored:

* Eliminate agency courier services and use the far-cheaper U.S. Postal Service or fax machines and electronic mail. Potential savings: $1.2 million a year, for starters.

* Consolidate management of state buildings and require more bulk purchases of supplies, equipment and services.

* Install energy-efficient lighting in these buildings, require energy conservation steps in new buildings and conduct energy performance evaluations. Potential savings: more than $14 million a year.

* Require bulk purchases of all small products. This could save $435,000 a year.

* Privatize building guards and housekeeping services.

* Privatize the last two state chronic care hospitals.

* Require more user fees for services of the Department of Natural Resources; privatize the department's Crisfield marina.

Other big-ticket items revolve around bureaucratic bumbling that has meant the loss of tens of millions of federal dollars. Simply by doing the paperwork correctly and following federal guidelines, the commission figures the state could recoup at least $30 million.

When the legislature and governor finally get serious, they will turn to Mr. Butta's list. Far bigger savings could lie ahead. The final commission report may well call for an overhaul of the much-derided state personnel system; cost-efficiencies in the MedEvac program; a strategy for controlling spiraling Medicaid costs; and privatizing some state hospitals for the mentally ill.

These are controversial suggestions. While lawmakers may embrace some of the other ideas from Mr. Butta, they have shown no desire to endorse basic reforms of government agencies that might rile special-interest constituencies.

That's a shame because the public demand for such changes remains strong, even if the politicians in Annapolis aren't listening.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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