Maryland Emergency Workers Kill Privatization, Reform Bills

Stories like this one make me glad I’m getting ready to move into a community with privatized fire services:

Emergency workers, a powerful grass-roots lobby in almost every state, are a fearsome political force in Maryland, drawing their strength by deftly mobilizing a large network capable of conveying the emotionally charged message that their work means the difference between life and death.

During the legislative session that ended last month, the emergency services community received almost everything it was seeking despite being under the shadow of a medevac crash that killed four and forced a review of possible overuse of the state-run helicopter service. A subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation made it clear that the medevac service adhered to some safety and flight standards that were less rigorous than industry norms.

In a tight budget year, lawmakers gave the Maryland State Police $52.5 million to begin purchasing new medevac helicopters and $635,000 for safety upgrades to the current fleet. The Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore received $13.5 million for an ongoing renovation and a commitment of $50 million over the next five years for a seven-story addition.

Emergency workers packed hearing rooms and other public events, often in uniform, fighting off one proposal that would have privatized the state police-run medical helicopter program, and another that would have replaced an independent agency that oversees emergency services with a department led by a political appointee. […]

The independent agency, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, oversees and unifies every aspect of emergency services, including firefighters, dispatchers, medics, the state-run medevac helicopter program and the state’s nine trauma centers. When a proposal affects any one component, the entire network mobilizes.

“All you have to do is mention that you are going to mess with our program, and we show up in droves,” said Frank Underwood, president of the Maryland State Fireman’s Association. […]

Supporters of privatizing the medevac service argued that doing so would save money. Their proposal made it to a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee in part because analysts had predicted a budget shortfall of almost $2 billion.

“I thought that it made sense to look at all of our options. During these hard times, I don’t think there should be any sacred cows,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who chaired the finance committee. Middleton, who opposes privatizing the medevac service, said his office was inundated with phone calls, e-mails and faxes from coalition members who didn’t understand why he allowed the bills to be debated. “I heard from every fire and rescue chief in the state of Maryland,” he said. “I got e-mails from people in my own county saying that you will let us down and embarrass us if you hear these bills.”

Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery) said he was surprised by the reaction when he introduced a bill that would have delayed the purchase of new state police helicopters by one year so lawmakers could properly research the purchase. “That’s not a lot to ask for,” he said. “But they look at this one-year delay as an attack, so they mobilized against it.”

The bills to privatize the medevac service and create a new state-run department never made it out of the Senate Finance Committee. The bill to delay the helicopter purchase was overwhelmingly defeated on the Senate floor.

If politicians bowed to every protected public employee union and their doom-and-gloom prognostications regarding the potential impact of privatization or spending cuts, they’d never be able to cut anything out of the state budget. In fact, that sort of thinking is what’s helped states get into the budget mess they’re in in the first place.