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How Hogan blew the politics of making government efficient

Voters elected Gov. Larry Hogan on the promise that he would make state government more efficient. Though his campaign didn't go into great detail about what that meant, voters quite likely assumed he would reorganize departments, streamline operations and probably even eliminate some state workers. Few relish that last idea, but many, even Democrats, would probably be willing to accept the premise that fresh eyes could find ways to deliver services at less cost to the taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the Hogan administration managed to bungle the politics of its first real attempt at such a reorganization. The plan to revamp the human resources functions of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services became such a self-inflicted horror show that the governor this week wisely pulled back from a proposal that would have resulted in layoffs for at least 27 people even though he had a strong case on the merits.

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Things started off well enough. In July, the administration announced that it would ask the Board of Public Works to approve $3 million in cuts to the agency as part of a restructuring of its human resources staff. In a statement, DPSCS said the move would promote "unity of command, centralized direction and authority and uniformity of employee processes." As a department official later explained it, the agency's human resources structure was a vestige of a time when each prison operated independently, and as a result, processes and standards might be different in Jessup than in Cumberland. The current situation produced "duplication of services, overlap, communication problems, and disincentives to any economies of scale," the department said.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Appropriations Committee chairwoman and a Baltimore Democrat who was briefed at the time, said that this was the sort of thing that was bound to result from the Hogan administration's determination to cut 2 percent from agency budgets but that it wasn't necessarily the wrong move. "Do I see anything here that says this is terrible?" she said at the time. "No."

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But a strange thing happened when the matter went before the Board of Public Works. Rather than pitching the job losses as painful-but-necessary budget tightening, Corrections Secretary Stephen T. Moyer couched them as part of his mission to rid the department of the corruption that led to the Black Guerrilla Family scandal at the now shuttered Baltimore City Detention Center. He effectively pointed a finger at the Human Resources department as complicit in the scandal by hiring the wrong people and failing to discipline or fire bad workers. At a board meeting in August, he noted that since 2013, 253 corrections employees had been arrested yet 200 of them still worked for the agency — and that didn't even count the BCDC scandal. At that meeting, Governor Hogan doubled down on the corruption angle, going on at length about the city jail and saying he had specifically recruited Secretary Moyer to fix it. "There's something wrong with a human resources department that hires those 253 people and doesn't fire those 253 people," he said.

The problems Secretary Moyer talked about in pitching his plan — faulty and inconsistent screening, poor communications, lax discipline and even improper influence by wardens on human resources policy — all had to do with upper management, yet the people whose jobs were on the line were mainly low level workers who generally had nothing to do with hiring or firing in the first place. Indeed, the agency's human resources head acknowledged that most of the employees subject to firing had received satisfactory or outstanding performance reviews. August's meeting included the unfortunate spectacle of Secretary Moyer and one of the workers who was to be fired, a middle-aged African-American woman, standing toe-to-toe at the podium as she pleaded, "What did I do?"

Neither Secretary Moyer nor the governor ever said that the employees who were being fired were responsible for the BCDC scandal, but the way it was presented certainly made them seem, in Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp's words, like collateral damage.

In the end, the governor directed Secretary Moyer to revise the plan to protect those workers, and he did. The HR department will still be streamlined and centralized, and those two-dozen workers will move into other jobs in the agency. A plan that was to save $3 million will now save $1.5 million and will have the effect of restoring some jobs that were eliminated during O'Malley administration cost cutting.

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Governor Hogan got to the right place — even the union that represents corrections employees, and which is generally no fan of his, is satisfied. He deserves credit for that. Still, this needs to be a learning experience. There are plenty of people in Annapolis who will try to block his path for political reasons even when he's right on the policy questions, and he can't afford many more unforced errors like this one.

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