Dear Larry —
I hope I can still call you Larry, at least until you're sworn in. You grew up in Beltsville, in my district. Your father and mine were friends back in the 1960s. I didn't vote for you, but I'm convinced you're sincere about wanting to hold down state spending without rolling back all the progress Maryland has made in recent years — in college affordability, crime reduction, better schools and expansion of health care, to name just a few.
I've got a few ideas for reforms that I think can win bipartisan support — and save big money.
First, a few don'ts: three ideologically-driven blind alleys to avoid.
Don't count on deleting the "waste, fraud and abuse" line item in the budget. It's not there. As Senate chair of the Joint Audit Committee, I see all the audits. State agencies, like all human institutions, do make mistakes, and the state needs to constantly fix what's broken. But if you want to make government more efficient and shrink state spending, that's not where the big money is.
Don't be penny-wise and pound foolish. Focus on initiatives that will provide long-term savings and which will have political support beyond your term as governor.
Don't champion the tea party ideology of "less is better." Less public safety investment means more crime. Less funding for the University of Maryland means higher college tuition. Less health-insurance coverage means more emergency room visits we all pay for. But there are major initiatives you can champion that will allow the state to "do more with less." And that can save large amounts of money, allowing us to hold down taxes while investing in economic growth and social progress for the long run.
The big savings, to use management jargon, are in re-inventing the business models in the major verticals — education, transportation, public safety, health care and environmental protection.
In education, for example, we spend too much on remedial courses, mindless testing, 20th-century instruction models and gold-plated school buildings. We spend too little on pre-K, digital learning, competency-based credit, school choice and career education. Shifting the balance would save the state money — and improve education.
In school construction, don't reduce the state commitment, but make it more efficient. Do for all interested counties what we did last year for Baltimore — trade 15-year debt on the state's balance sheet for a 30-year state commitment to share the debt service on local bonds. And stop requiring school districts to overbuild schools to outlast demographic changes. As a real estate guy, you know commercial buildings are built for shorter life spans so they can be updated affordably when the market changes. That could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year — and speed up improvements in our school buildings.
Early college high school provides another big opportunity to save money for state and local governments — and families — while raising academic standards. Last year, the legislature passed SB 740, designed to drive integration of high school and college. You can drive its success with your budget by providing incentives for high schools and colleges to make early-college the norm, not the exception, for college bound students.
In health care, as well, opportunities to save money while improving health are large. Obamacare and the state's new Medicare waiver give Maryland powerful tools to reward better health, not more medical procedures. The key is to change the incentives for doctors, hospitals and nursing homes — focus on digital medical records, telemedicine, managed care for chronic diseases and preventive health. Like early-college high school, these initiatives save money for families as well as the state. And, since so many employers share the cost of health insurance, we can save money for business as well.
And in public safety, the big state money is in the prisons and jails. Obviously, we want to keep dangerous criminals in prison. But Maryland can be smarter and cheaper in protecting our neighborhoods and businesses. First, focus prison time on violent offenders, not non-violent ones. The decriminalization of marijuana we passed in 2014 is a big step on that direction. Other Republican governors have led reform on this. So can you.
Investing in big data can do more as well. Attorney General-elect Brian Frosh has championed relying on proven statistical prediction of arrestees' likelihood to jump bail, instead of costly court officials. Work with him to make us safer at lower cost. Similarly, security cameras — and speed cameras — are proven techniques to improve safety at lower cost. Embrace technology, don't fight it. Finally, since most prisoners eventually get out of jail, invest in keeping them from returning. Today it's too hard for them to get a job and too easy to fall back into crime. Take the savings from fewer jail cells and invest them in keeping ex-cons on the straight and narrow: literacy, job training, tight supervision and clear paths.
These strategies — in education, health care, and public safety — aren't the only ways to do more with less. But they are big ones which could win bipartisan support.
Larry, let's work together — to change Maryland, for the better.