'Reagan's revenge' hits city belatedly, but with double blow

Glen McNatt

December 04, 1990|By Glenn McNatt

IN THE THREE suburban counties adjoining Baltimore city, Ronald Reagan has got his revenge. Voters last month threw out three Democratic county executives in favor of GOP candidates who promised to curb spending and hold the line on taxes.

It's a good bet that none of the three will be able to do either. But then, neither could Ronald Reagan -- yet voters probably would GlennMcNatthave elected him to a third term as president if they could have.

As president, Reagan promised to get the federal government off our backs. What he did was dump responsibility for everything from housing to transportation to health care into the laps of local government, without giving cities and towns a penny to pay for it.

In the early years of the Reagan era, the heaviest burden fell on cities, traditionally Democratic strongholds. Funds for public housing, urban renewal and mass transit virtually disappeared, leaving many cities confronting huge budget deficits that could only be closed by slashing services and hiking property taxes.

In the wake of the devasting recession of 1981-82, reduced services and higher taxes effectively halted the hopeful experiments in gentrification of the previous decade and accelerated the flight of the middle class, white and black, from urban grime to leafy suburbs.

From the mid-1980s onward, that urban exodus precipitated explosive growth in the hitherto somnolent suburbs around the old urban cores. As property values in the near greenbelt shot upward, developers pushed the metropolitan frontier outward ever further into the exurbs, dotting what previously had been farmland with look-alike town house communities, apartment complexes and shopping malls.

The newly invaded jurisdictions, however, were ill-equipped to handle this sudden influx. Developers failed to supply the infrastructure of schools, roads, water and sewerage to support the expanding population housed in the new tracts. The result was commuter gridlock, overcrowded classrooms, environmental crisis. In Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, Democratic executives and county councils responded by expanding the people-oriented services and programs that have been their party's mainstay -- and raising taxes to pay for them.

Higher suburban taxes produced a revolt among upwardly mobile refugees from high city taxes. The rebellion coalesced around efforts to limit property tax assessment increases and cap the growth of local spending. The cycle came full circle in the last election, when voters tossed out perceived "big spending" Democrats in favor of Republicans who promised to get local government off our backs.

So in a sense, Ronald Reagan has had his revenge twice in Maryland. He orchestrated the massive withdrawal of federal aid from the cities that has largely succeeded in bankrupting the traditionally Democratic stronghold of Baltimore city, which is now rapidly losing both population and political clout. The unprecedented shift away from domestic spending that occurred under Reagan also contributed to a fiscal crisis in the surrounding jurisdictions that created a backlash which toppled Democratic administrations in three of the four metropolitan counties.

As a result, Baltimore city finds itself doubly isolated. It is a poor urban jurisdiction surrounded by relatively affluent suburbs and it is a Democratic enclave embedded in a region increasingly dominated by Republican county executives. Whether the GOP administrations that border the city will pay any more than lip service to the notion of "regionalism" remains to be seen. In practical terms, the city's alternatives in the new situation come down to one or the other of two equally risky strategies. It can either fight or switch.

It's unlikely anti-tax sentiment in Baltimore will soon achieve a force sufficient to break the Democrats' hammerlock on City Hall. Yet it's conceivable the party could fracture and throw up a conservative, anti-tax challenger to the current administration on a wave of populist resentment. Mayor Schmoke is trying to position himself to ward off just such a challenge by introducing his own tax cut next year.

The city could also fight. Various groups, among them the Maryland unit of the American Civil Liberties Union, are looking into the possibility of suing the state over its formula for funding public education. That course is fraught with peril, however: There are any number of ways a hostile legislature could wreak revenge -- including abolishing state aid to education altogether.

Baltimore ultimately may find it simply has to go along to get along in the new climate. The problem is, with a looming recession fueling voter fears of anything that smacks of new social spending, no matter how well the city goes along it still may not get very far.

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