ANNAPOLIS – Activists flooded a state government efficiency commission Thursday, imploring the group to keep its hands off the Department of Aging, the forestry service and state funding for independent colleges.
Most of the 31 speakers at the commission’s final public hearing seized on those three topics from among scores of proposals the group released Monday. About 60 people attended, excluding the 25 commission members.
“Any time you recommend change, you face opposition,” said the commission’s chairman, former Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel.
The group will consider revising its proposals and finalize them Dec. 2, Mandel said.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. created the group in August with the goals of increasing efficiency, cutting costs and strengthening his oversight over Maryland’s independent agencies. He will receive the commission’s final report Dec. 8.
Ehrlich sat in on Thursday’s three-and-a-half-hour hearing for about 45 minutes – the first time he has attended. He also met privately with Mandel and commission staffers afterward for a progress report, Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said.
Thursday’s most popular targets were not technically commission proposals.
The commission recommended further study of moving the Department of Aging into a proposed Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, transferring the forestry service from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture and possibly reducing or eliminating state aid to independent colleges.
“Everyone was pounding on it as if it were a recommendation from the commission,” said commission member Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., regarding potential college aid cuts.
The commission has also recommended merging many state police agencies, privatizing Maryland Public Television and revamping oversight of Chesapeake Bay conservation programs. No constituents spoke on those topics.
That silence can be interpreted as approval, Mandel said, noting that many bay organizations have already contacted the commission to voice approval.
Senior citizens and county aging department leaders were loudest in their denunciations.
“We respectfully request that you streamline some other department,” said 63-year-old Claire Whitbeck, of Leonardtown, adding seniors know “streamlining” is government code for reducing services.
Lumping seniors in with the disabled will muffle seniors’ calls for service and amounts to a one-size-fits-all approach, many senior activists said. Many cited Maryland’s growing senior population and federal laws requiring separate aging offices.
“I’m concerned that it’s even on the table,” said Laurie S. Frank, who spoke on behalf of the Maryland D.C. Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
“Someone obviously had recruited witnesses,” Hogan said, regarding the number who spoke on the issue.
The commission’s call for a new study of higher education brought out students, alumni and college presidents, many of whom focused on maintaining state aid to independent colleges.
“What they were trying to do was cut the funding for independent and private institutions,” said David Washington, a junior at Capitol College in Laurel. A dean encouraged him to tell the commission how cuts would hurt thousands of students around the state, he said.
Forest landowners also showed up in force to urge the commission to keep the state forestry service within the Department of Natural Resources, arguing they had finally developed a good relationship with that department.
Other speakers attacked proposals ranging from giving the Maryland Stadium Authority oversight in local school construction and changing the property tax assessment schedule from three to five years.
“My guess is it will stay at three years,” Mandel said.
Commission members are meeting to discuss the new input and make changes to the draft by Monday.