Renegotiating Maryland's Social Contract


October 20, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Has the social compact between Marylanders and their government unraveled?

Are we in the midst of drastically revising the relationship of citizens to their state and local governments?

Judging from the budget-deficit fallout in the State House and county seats, major changes are taking place. Not all of them are beneficial.

It used to be that Marylanders knew what to expect of their governments. The state would provide a social safety net for the poorest and neediest and an array of services for middle-class Marylanders, especially a vast infusion of funds for public schools. Local governments, meanwhile, would run the schools, augment social services for the middle class and provide for police, fire protection and garbage collection.

In return, citizens agreed to pay for these services. Over the years, the parameters of individual taxation remained remarkably stable. State income-tax rates have not changed in nearly a quarter-century; sales tax rates haven't risen since 1977. And thanks to soaring real estate values in suburbia, most counties paid for their expanded services through inflated property assessments without dramatic hikes in the property tax rate.

As Maryland's economy boomed, governments added to the depth and breadth of their offerings. While Ronald Reagan was convincing Americans they could get the same level of services without raising taxes, Maryland's leaders pushed ahead to upgrade higher education, local schools and health and training benefits. They acted as though the state's good fortune would never end. But it did.

The network of state social programs has now expanded to the point that even if the economy rights itself and revenues pick up, even if there is further downsizing of government, the state's deficit will reach $2 billion by 2000.

There are two ways out of this conundrum: massive and sweeping government cuts or higher taxes. Since the "no new taxes" clamor continues to terrify timorous legislators and county officials, massive tax hikes are unlikely.

This leaves office holders with no choice. The role of government in delivering services and assistance must be radically overhauled.

The irony is that Marylanders have become so comfortable with these services that they cannot bear to think of doing without. Cut medevac flights? Cut state troopers? The citizenry rebels. Cut school funds? Teacher unions are up in arms. Cut local aid? County executives predict disaster.

Yet who among them is brave enough to champion an alternative? How many county executives are willing to impose vastly higher local taxes? How many teachers would accept smaller pension benefits or less pay to restore aid to the classrooms? If citizens don't want medevac or police service reduced, what are they willing to give up instead?

Marylanders persist in the notion they can still receive all present services at no extra cost if only the governor would eliminate waste. This canard remains a persuasive -- though seriously flawed -- argument.

Even with a new round of "fat-slicing", a huge deficit would remain. Programs must end. People must be fired by the thousands. And citizens will have to learn to accept a lowered standard of living.

No rape crisis centers. Few drug abuse clinics. A shutdown of most branch libraries. Fewer police stations and fire-engine companies. Less job-training. No safety net for many of the state's retarded, mentally ill or disabled.

A raft of fees in lieu of taxes that will mean hefty charges for virtually everything government offers. Fewer college professors and fewer course offerings. Fewer public school teachers and larger classes. A "return to basics" that features basic reading, writing, computation and required other required courses but not much else.

Little aid for the arts. No new roads and minimal bridge repair. No additional mass-transit lines.

A privatization spin-off of state operations -- the World Trade Center, BWI Airport, state hospitals, health-care clinics, state parks or other valuable natural resources, the new stadium, penal institutions, state colleges. Nearly any state or local enterprise of value would be up for grabs.

Government's role in society would be narrowed. No programs for seniors unless fees cover costs. A slim amount of aid for the poor. The bare federal minimum for Medicaid recipients.

Sharply restricted local aid for police, fire and schools. Crushing new burdens on the city and county governments. If people want restoration of services, they will have to brow-beat their council members and county executive to hike property taxes even in the face of countervailing pressure from "no new taxes" diehards.

Can this revamping of state and local governments be accomplished? Absolutely.

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