Schaefer's Ax Boosts the Cry of Save Our Cities

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

October 05, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Gov. Schaefer's surprise, delivered with aplomb amid the consternation of affected state workers, programs and localities, could have been predicted. Actually, it was. Mr. Schaefer told hecklers this week that he'd told them so when legislative leaders defeated his initiatives with ''no new taxs'' rhetoric, and indeed he had. But the clearest predictions of today's state of affairs were made a decade ago by critics of Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Reagan's misty-eyed dream of a second American Revolution and a new federalism translated into sustained cuts in grants to state and local governments. According to the Wall Street Journal, over 10 years aid to cities and states dropped from 15 percent of all federal outlays to 11 percent. The effect was magnified on Main Street: federal grants fell from 26 percent of all state and local expenditures to 18 percent.

The Save Our Cities campaign analyzed it from a Baltimore perspective. Direct federal grants fell dramatically between fiscal and fiscal 1990, in constant dollars. From 1980's $40.2 million for elementary and secondary education, 1990's total slipped to $27.4 million. Community college support was whacked from $6.5 million to $3 million. Health funds dropped from $11 million to $7 million.

Job training -- which should be growing as workers and companies try to respond to competition from better managed, ''smarter-working'' offshore competitors -- fell from $85 million to $9 million. Community Development Block Grants dropped from $31.1 million to $13.9 million, while federal revenue sharing funds went dropped off the chart altogether, from 1980's $25.3 million to nothing.

If that was a mouthful to swallow in a single paragraph, here's what it meant to Maryland when the economy went sour and the state could no longer offset the draining away of federal support: 1,766 state jobs, $100 million worth of cuts in aid to local governments, the whole panoply of cuts in Medicaid, health, welfare, education, public safety programs around the state.

Sophists for the voodoo school of economics would rush to the defense of the Laffer Curve, long after David Stockman abandoned it. The states benefited from the Reagan revolution, reaping big new revenues from the economic activity of the people who walked off with the biggest of the Reagan tax cuts, these analysts say. The states blew it by rushing in with new initiatives where the federal coffers were selectively closed to social spending, when they should have been fiscally more prudent.

Let's say it now, loudly and with feeling: Fie on all mealy-mouthed apologists for the selfishness represented by that rhetoric. Programs which aid families cast adrift by the vagaries of the economy, attempts to rebuild a long-neglected transportation infrastructure, campaigns to improve health care for those least able to pay for it, working to save the environment and strengthen schools and colleges cannot be frills. Not to a civilized society.

Save Our Cities has announced a march on Washington, beginning with the brave souls who plan to start walking from Carroll Park Wednesday, to culminate in a demonstration at the Capitol. The march, organized by Sister Catherine Corr and former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, is intended to draw attention to a question long disregarded in the battle over federal priorities: what happens to the people when the government abandons its responsibilities?

Talking points about efficiency, lean-and-mean corporations and ''outmoded'' New Deal traditions may have sounded good at the beginning of the Eighties. But traditions are really ritualized solutions to old problems long forgotten. When you discard traditions without carefully weighing the costs, you get the problems back, in spades. A decade of unfettered supply-side economics produced the wrecking crew that looted Wall Street, shattered the cohesion of American industry and paid for a lot of condos in the Caymans, but left no strength to face the might of Pacific Rim Inc., just getting up steam.

What we need here is a new New Deal president, for the problems of transportation and public-health infrastructure, environment, education and people needs are too great for any state to fund alone. New Jersey's Gov. Florio met hoots of outrage when he hiked taxs to meet the needs he could see coming, but Jersey has not had to cut higher education like Maryland. Neither have Pennsylvania, which just passed its highest-ever tax increase, or Delaware.

Gov. Schaefer has thrown the gauntlet into the legislature's lap, and higher Maryland taxs are in the offing despite the protestations to the contrary. What must be recognized, however, and the Save Our Cities march can help, is that the problems have grown so great that only a renewed federal emphasis can address them. March leaders hope at least 10,000 Baltimoreans will join them at Memorial Stadium next Saturday for the ride to Washington. Gov. Schaefer's surprise probably made many more Marylanders receptive, but the budget ax he's wielding was already put into action by Ronald Reagan.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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