- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Disabilities would fulfill a campaign promise while slightly increasing the size of the government he promised to streamline.

The Maryland Department of Disabilities would be the first of its kind in the nation — a $3 million, 21-personnel agency that oversees other state agencies that deal with disabled persons. It would be headed by Kristen Cox, currently the director of the governor’s Office for Individuals with Disabilities.

The Republican governor’s spokesman, Henry P. Fawell, says the creation of the watchdog agency would meet campaign vows to make the government more efficient.

“We have found dramatic instances of fiscal mismanagement,” Mr. Fawell said. “The fact that Gov. Ehrlich has reduced spending by $1.3 billion indicates that there had been gross fiscal mismanagement by the previous administration, and it is further evidence watchdog agencies are needed.”

State Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore Republican, has doubts about the new agency.

“Frankly, I am concerned about the cost of starting a new department,” Mr. Stoltzfus said. “But it is his initiative, and we will see where it goes.”

Other Republican lawmakers have expressed public support for Mr. Ehrlich, but have privately questioned the wisdom of creating the agency amid a budget crisis. Mr. Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years, last month presented a $23.8 billion budget that would close a $786 million deficit by cutting aid to local governments and increasing some fees.

Mr. Stoltzfus said that, if he were Mr. Ehrlich, he would not have proposed a new agency during a time of budgetary belt-tightening. “I would like to have the position without the cost,” he said.

Delegate Norman H. Conway, Eastern Shore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, agreed with Mr. Stoltzfus.

“I am not sure that the time is right for a new Cabinet-level position when we are dealing with a significant budget deficit,” said Mr. Conway, whose committee oversees the allocation of funds to state agencies.

In his gubernatorial campaign in October 2002, Mr. Ehrlich said he wanted Maryland to be at the forefront in complying with U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Maryland would be the first state to establish a watchdog agency solely dedicated to the disabled. South Carolina has had a Department of Disabilities and Special Needs since the 1960s, and Texas recently set up a Department of Aging and Disabilities.

In December 2002, the Ehrlich transition team officials considered combining the departments of Natural Resources and the Environment to streamline government operations.

But Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula last week said the departments would remain as separate agencies.

“They [each] have a unique mission,” Mr. DiPaula said. “We seem to be best served by the separate functions of each agency.”

The Department of Natural Resources is tasked with preserving and restoring the state’s resources, while the Department of the Environment regulates the use of natural resources. Together, the agencies receive about $330 million in state funds and account for more than 1.5 percent of the state budget.

Mr. DiPaula said that about half of the state governments combine the two agencies into one.

He also noted that Mr. Ehrlich has eliminated about 3,300 filled and unfilled positions since taking office in January 2003 — a 5 percent reduction in state government — and added that the administration is still looking for ways to cut more fat from the budget.

“It is a never-ending search for efficiency,” Mr. DiPaula said. “And Governor Ehrlich is asking each of his Cabinet secretaries to develop greater efficiency in their services that they are providing to Marylanders and seek to do more with less resources.”

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