The high cost of Maryland’s understaffed state government | COMMENTARY

Pamela Wood/Baltimore Sun/TNS
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Last Tuesday, Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles made a concession during a public hearing in Annapolis that you don’t hear every day from a top Hogan administration official. It was essentially this: The state doesn’t have enough employees to adequately enforce anti-pollution laws. And it wasn’t some sudden problem related to COVID-19, but much more chronic and long-standing. In the case of those who oversee drinking water systems, for example, the Department of the Environment has a vacancy rate of nearly 40%, a shortage that dates back years before the pandemic. Secretary Grumbles also admitted the agency needs to do a better job of policing the poultry industry and vowed to hire more inspectors to protect the Chesapeake Bay against threats like runoff from farm fields saturated with chicken manure.

While the promises Secretary Grumbles made to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee were welcome, this manpower shortage has become something of a theme during the seven-year tenure of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who took office with a promise to rein in state government and reduce taxes. But it’s one thing to decide that state government should become more efficient or that a particular function or project should be dropped; it’s quite another to allow vital services (and surely making sure tap water is potable is among them) to be compromised by inadequate staffing. It doesn’t save anyone money if, for example, to shave $1 million off the state payroll, if it results in $100 million of unintended damage to the environment, the economy or the health and safety of state residents.

This penny-wise, pound-foolish philosophy has made its presence known before. In the recent debate over gun violence that Governor Hogan amplified with “Re-Fund The Police” rhetoric, he ignored how his administration has failed to adequately staff its own Division of Parole and Probation, which, in turn, means released offenders lack sufficient supervision. As Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and others have observed, a high percentage of those who commit serious crimes in Baltimore are people who reported to DPP. What happens when at least 129 such supervisory jobs are left unfilled, as they were in 2021? (Up from 96 parole agent and monitor vacancies reported in 2019.) It’s not helping prevent homicides, that’s for certain.

And the list goes on. A recent report on cybersecurity noted that state government is vulnerable to further disasters like the ransomware attack of the Maryland Department of Health that has hampered COVID-19 data collection and other vital health functions. Insufficient information technology staffing may have been an issue there. Too few workers may be partly to blame for the state’s failure to provide unemployment benefits in a timely manner, the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in November against the Maryland Department of Labor. Others have raised questions about whether the Department of Human Services has enough employees to properly supervise foster children or investigate claims of child abuse. And the union representing state correctional officers warned earlier this month that state prisons aren’t safe because of a 10% vacancy rate in their ranks.

Recently, Governor Hogan released his proposed $58.2 billion state budget for the next fiscal year with promises of goodies like tax cuts and increased aid to higher education. But lawmakers will need to closely scrutinize the more routine, and considerably less headline-making, matter of whether the core functions of government are managed despite, widespread vacancies. The executive branch currently reports more than 6,000 vacancies compared to 2009, when there were fewer than half as many, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services. More than half are in the areas of public safety, health and human services. And it isn’t the top highly-paid posts that go unfilled; analysts found it was often clerical, paraprofessional and maintenance staff that, in turn, helped push overtime costs to nearly $300 million a year.

Employee bonuses and permanently raising state salaries, as the governor has proposed, should help, but there’s more to be done. Might more generous telework policies help? A 10-day COVID leave policy? Fill those vacant jobs and perhaps the state will have a workforce capable of foreseeing problems like insufficient cybersecurity safeguards on state computers or to make sure a D.C. suburban light rail project, the Purple Line, doesn’t run of the rails with a $1.4 billion cost overrun and a 4-year delay. This is a state election year, and it’s not easy to campaign on competency but those running for governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, state attorney general and for the state legislature alike ought to be prepared to explain if they intend to get these jobs filled — and the essential work of state government done in a timely manner.

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