Voters' Ideas to Fix Md. Budget, at O'Malley's Request, Pour in

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is looking to avoid a projected $700 million shortfall in the state budget.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is looking to avoid a projected $700 million shortfall in the state budget. (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
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By Michael Laris and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 15, 2009

To save money, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley could crank up state thermostats by 2 degrees. He could fire his press staff. Or he could furlough his father-in-law, former attorney general J. Joseph Curran (D), who works at a state agency that administers workers' compensation insurance.

Or how about ditching the requirement for license plates on the fronts of cars, suggested a taxpayer from Howard. "Would it be out of the question for you Governor to lower your salary and others in your admin. to say $1 per year?" queried another from Baltimore County. And for state-run institutions that need laundry done, added a Montgomery County resident, "I have a working clothes line that is phenomenal with savings."

Those -- and about 2,500 other suggestions -- have poured in to O'Malley's office in the three weeks since he asked the public for help in closing a potential $700 million budget shortfall.

The 351 pages worth of rants, musings, riffs and thoughtful entries, released by O'Malley's staff Friday after a hurried bout of redaction and technical glitches, added fresh voices to the fiscal dust-ups dominating talk in Annapolis and Ocean City, where politicians are gathered this weekend for an annual meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties.

It's an increasingly common exercise as politicians tap technology to try to connect with constituents. Opening up the mechanics of government to the free-for-all of the Web is relatively easy, and it adds a feeling of hipness and humility to what can be the mundane and bruising realities of everyday governing.

But doing something useful with the offerings might be a different matter. Whether the O'Malley administration gets credit for trying depends on who is asked.

Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, dismissed the exercise as "a PR stunt" by O'Malley, who is up for reelection next year, saying it is unlikely to generate much in savings.

"How many people have an integral knowledge of the state budget?" Summers asked. "You have 188 lawmakers in Annapolis, and you can probably count on one hand the number who get it."

But Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the District-based Sunlight Foundation, said crowd sourcing a budget review can be an effective way to engage the minds of people other than "the so-called experts."

"Conceptually, this is a really good thing, and it is terrific to see a governor experimenting in this area," Miller said.

There is certainly a need for good ideas.

The $700 million shortfall O'Malley (D) is trying to close is for the current fiscal year, which started last month. And things are expected to get worse before they get better. Legislative analysts project a shortfall of about $1.5 billion in next fiscal year's budget.

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