How serious are leaders of the General Assembly about downsizing government? When it comes to talking with constituents, they sound like members of the slash-spending-to-the-bone club. But in the State House, they become members of the not-in-my-back-yard club.
That's why the much-ballyhooed push for privatization and efficiency in government has hit a brick wall. Legislative leaders give lip service to the ideas, then block passage of the bills. They are perpetrating a cruel hoax on their constituents.
Look at what is happening to the Butta commission recommendations on streamlining state government and making agencies more self-sufficient. Members of the commission have been rudely treated by legislators, especially by assembly leaders who have expressed derision and outright hostility to proposals that would save taxpayers money by closing facilities and merging agencies. The situation has gotten so bad that commission members don't want to testify before legislative panels. Why should these private citizens take such abuse?
Legislators aren't really interested in paring state government expenses if it means losing popularity with vested interest groups. Our lawmakers want to talk about cutting spending but they don't want to make any personal political sacrifices.
That's what happened with the proposal to get Maryland out of the chronic-care business by privatizing two hospitals in Salisbury and Hagerstown. Such erstwhile fiscal conservatives as Sen. Donald Munson and Del. James McClellan suddenly turned into proponents of big-government spending to keep these hospitals under state control. Instead of saving $3 million, Messrs. Munson and McClellan can claim credit for increasing the taxpayers' bill by $3 million a year.
A few legislators are willing to make the sacrifice. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell has proposed merging agencies and privatizing government functions. But he's run into opposition from his own colleagues and the governor. Some Republican leaders have pushed for downsizing, too.
The bulk of the suggestions by the Butta commission on government efficiency and the Hellmann commission on privatization are being ignored. To save money would require courageous votes. But offending voters is the last thing senators and delegates want to do, especially with the election only a year and a half away. In Annapolis these days, downsizing government isn't nearly as important as getting ready to win re-election.