Baer: Gov. Wolf’s wonderful world of consolidation

Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf, seen here in a Philly school classroom in November 2016, wants to consolidate four state agencies in the state bureaucracy into one.

So Gov. Wolf wants to consolidate four state agencies in the sprawling state bureaucracy into one.

At last, a brave new world of less red tape and more taxpayer savings, right?

And fashioned by a Democrat!

Instead of separate departments of Human Services, Aging, Drug & Alcohol, and Health, with a total of close to 19,000 workers, we’ll have a Department of Health and Human Services with a total of … well, actually, we don’t know.

In fact, we don’t know if there’ll be any fewer workers. Wolf’s chief of policy and planning, Sarah Galbally, says staff reductions "will be minimal, if they happen at all.”

Oh, so no taxpayer sayings? Well, she says there’ll be savings -- details Wolf will share when he offers next year’s budget proposal on Feb. 7.

But, says Galbally, this is about ending duplication and improving services by “cutting unnecessary bureaucracy.”

Alrightly then. Just a few observations:

A cynic could suggest a Democrat seeking reelection, as Wolf intends next year, sees political benefit here.

Cut the operational size of government to win some GOP base support. But keep unionized workers and avoid angering a chunk of the Democratic base.

And, what? Republicans controlling the legislature -- many of whom see government’s only roles as delivering mail and protecting borders -- are going to oppose trimming bureaucracy and combining services?

I don’t think so.

But the GOP could go along with the merger then hand Wolf legislation with less funding to force reduction of the new department’s complement. If you end duplicative programs, why keep duplicative workers?

As one longtime Republican insider puts it, “I’m not sure the administration has thought through what can happen here.”

Or maybe it has. Maybe Wolf wants fewer workers but no union blame.

Still, I view any such merger as overdue and wonder what took so long.

I don’t recall Wolf’s first two years filled with calls for “cutting unnecessary bureaucracy.”

And this is someone who worked in bureaucracy as Gov. Rendell’s secretary of revenue, who dealt with bureaucracy as a business owner, and who ran bureaucracy as the state’s chief executive.

But I’m for mergers. The more the merrier.

Let’s look at the state’s 20 or departments, its countless boards and commissions, its 500 school districts, its more than 4,000 governmental bodies in boroughs, townships, cities, counties, and local authorities.

Think of the savings if local fiefdoms fell.

And speaking of fiefdoms, how about merging the biggest of all? Why not make history and merge our state House and Senate into a unicameral legislature?

Right now, only Nebraska is unicameral. And nonpartisan: Candidates run without party labels. The top two vote-getters in primaries face off in general elections, and winners join the nation’s smallest legislative branch, a 49-member state Senate.

You may know Pennsylvania, with 253 lawmakers, has the nation’s largest full-time legislature.

And not to suggest small can be better, but Nebraska is routinely rated among the best-run states in America. The annual best-worst states rankings by the online financial news service 24/7 Wall St. lists Nebraska – with low debt, low unemployment, and no pension problems – third or fourth best-run in each of the last five years.

Pennsylvania’s current ranking is 42nd.

And not that there’s always correlation between big and bad, but a 2015 study out of Indiana University, Bloomington, ranks Nebraska the 4th least corrupt state. Pennsylvania was ranked 5th most corrupt, though we’re undoubtedly higher since the study was based on federal charges and so many of our public servants go down on state charges.

All this is to say government and politics could use some pruning. Wolf’s plan seems to make sense, even if it’s a heavy lift. And, worst case, it could be a good place to start.