John Baer: Cost-cut panel wants your ideas; this is no BS

Posted: March 11, 2010

IF IT'S an election year, it must be time for government cost-saving proposals. Yippee!

What's that? You think such efforts are political BS?

Just because the state senator running a commission on saving you money - Sen. David Argall, R-Schuykill County - is also running for Congress?

Just because a House member now calling for term-limiting legislative leaders, cleaning up per-diem costs and a constitutional convention - Rep. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne County - is running for state Senate?

Don't be cynical. Besides, this time, you get to play.

That's right, the Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission is accepting citizen comments on how to save tax dollars. You can send ideas to cuttingcosts@pasen.gov.

I reviewed many of 100-plus citizen ideas received so far and found a mix of predictable, extreme and intriguing thoughts. And one surprise.

Among the predictable ideas: cut the size of the Legislature and staff (as if); cut pension/benefit packages to state workers and lawmakers; end legislative slush funds; sell off the state stores; consolidate school districts, state offices and agencies.

I predict they're not happening.

Extreme suggestions? End all pensions; eliminate the 25,000 "non-essential" state workers furloughed during budget busts (government should hire only "essential" workers, e-mailer says); "NO GOVERNMENT VEHICLES" (apparently not even for emergencies, law enforcement, snow removal and highway maintenance); and "fire all the state workers and teachers" (in which case some government vehicles might come in handy).

But apart from ideas served with tea, I found some others interesting.

One writer said employees of school districts, counties, cities and local governments (and, I assume, state workers) should share one health-care contract to cut costs. Others have urged similar sharing of pension programs.

More than one writer suggests reducing the size or improving efficiency of the state vehicle fleet (roughly 17,000 vehicles used by 51 state agencies, boards and commissions, according to a 2009 auditor general report).

Use, for example, FastFleet, an on-demand, vehicle-sharing system tailored for the public sector and run by Zipcar. It allows users to get vehicles only when needed. Washington, D.C., the first to use the system, reportedly projects $1 million savings in the first year.

Another writer says to "put everyone in Chevy Cobalts." I'm surprised no one suggested Toyotas.

Several writers offered simple solutions such as less grass-mowing along interstates and turning off more lights: "The Capitol dome is lit up like a Christmas tree all night long. Is that needed?"

One e-mail surprised me. A writer suggests removing the weight-loss surgical benefit that medical-assistance recipients get, noting that state workers lost this benefit five years ago. A Welfare Department official confirms that the benefit exists but says it's approved only in cases of "medical necessity."

See? Read enough stuff and ya learn things.

The commission plans up to eight more hearings before the end of June. Argall and Philly- burbs Democrat Sen. Daylin Leach are the only elected members; eight others are from the private sector; some held public jobs.

Argall tells me that he hopes to get 10-0 votes on recommendations to offer in this year's budget. Leach says that's "probably not" happening because the commission is split between six Republicans and four Democrats, and because of time constraints.

When I ask Leach why this is not just another BS commission we've done a 100 times before, he says he was appointed only after criticizing it as "just another BS commission we've done 100 times before."

Which gets to my favorite e-mail. The subject line asks, "You can't figure out how to cut costs?" And the body says, in part, "You are the dumbest SOBs. . . . Listen closely: you people are ALL being voted out of office."

I doubt that happens. But I doubt much else does either.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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