Denial of the Obvious


March 03, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

There is an alarming trend in this country that started during the Reagan years: denial of the obvious.

Politicians learned they could sidestep prickly problems simply by denying that these problems existed. The morass known as the federal deficit is a classic illustration.

We are witnessing the same phenomenon locally. What is crystal clear to most people isn't so obvious to those with ties to government.

Teachers in Anne Arundel County want a 7 percent pay raise; firefighters in Baltimore still want a 6 percent raise, and teachers in Montgomery County are holding firm for a 6.5 percent raise. Has anyone told them there's a recession going on, that the nation's gross national product is going down, not up? Aren't they aware the city and counties face steep deficits?

Given the local anti-tax sentiment, there is only one way to cover these deficits -- reduce payroll expenses. If government workers insist on pay raises, they are ensuring that thousands of their colleagues will lose their jobs. Yet they continue to deny this will happen.

Meanwhile, school officials are engaged in another act of denial: trying to prevent the public from finding out how poorly schools are educating Maryland's children. They want the state to keep test scores on the performance of each school a closely guarded secret. For them, the important thing is to hide this information from the public rather than admit there's a problem.

In Annapolis, the governor's three big initiatives are in hot water because of this same kind of denial.

The Schaefer growth-control plan faces a disinformation campaign led by developers, land owners and local officials. None of them want to admit the obvious: that population sprawl is ruining the counties. Instead of doing something about it, instead of agreeing that future growth ought to be channeled into designated areas, they want to maintain the status quo as more farmland is consumed by development.

The growth plan is little short of communism, said one lobbyist to a group in Southern Maryland recently, an attempt to seize private property and tell people where to live. Even Comptroller Louis Goldstein has jumped into the act, with the preposterous claim this plan would "drive people off the land, disturb family relations. . . ."

Pure hogwash.

But their strategy has worked. The growth-control bill is probably headed for summer study. Rather than addressing the question of population sprawl, officials find it easier to deny the problem even exists.

The governor's other two major items, a gas-tax increase and the tax-reform proposals of the Linowes commission, are also floundering.

There really isn't a need for a gas-tax hike, says House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell. That, too, is bunk. Sure, you can make ends meet for another year and put off all major road improvements, but a hefty gas-tax increase is indeed essential -- unless Maryland wants its highways to resemble the cratered roads of Kuwait.

There isn't a need for the Linowes tax plan, either, says Sen. Laurence Levitan. He claims the plan is a sham to squeeze more money out of the middle class. Actually, Mr. Levitan is trying to protect his upper-class constituency in Montgomery County, which would indeed carry the brunt of the Linowes tax hit.

His solution? Deny there's a problem and let the state struggle along, regardless of the cost in terms of diminished services for the poor.

But the biggest denial of all comes from the state's revenue forecasters, including Comptroller Goldstein and the governor's budget director, Charles Benton. They want us to believe the recession will be over before you know it and that good times will return in a hurry.

These forecasters are predicting a 7.8 percent rise in income tax receipts -- even though layoffs and salary freezes are proliferating. They are predicting a 16 percent rise in corporate income taxes -- even though most firms will be lucky just to break even. They are predicting a 6.1 percent rise in sales tax receipts -- even though few people have more money to spend, no one seems to be buying appliances or cars and the construction industry continues to face hard times.

What are these folks smoking?

Maryland's economic predicament is far worse than officials are admitting. That's one reason the governor is so glum these days.

Yet what is the response? To pretend everything is fine, that the budget deficit is manageable and that prosperity will soon return.

Politicians in today's world don't want to make hard choices that might prove unpopular. Unless those in government start changing their tune, Maryland could face difficult times in the years ahead.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

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