The 'Sleep-In' and Other Forms of Dreaming

BARRY RASCOVAR

November 10, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

They still don't get it. Politicians and special interests across the state continue to hold tenaciously to the myth that happy days are just around the corner.

Even those who concede there is a severe budget crisis want someone else to bear the burden for cutting costs. They're not shy about using questionable tactics to get their way.

It's an offshoot of an adage former Sen. Russell Long quoted to describe politicians' feelings toward taxes: "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fella behind the tree."

In Maryland, they've added a second line related to budget reductions: "Don't cut you, don't cut me, cut that fella behind the tree."

Take a look at what's happening in Montgomery County, Maryland's Rodeo Drive on the Potomac -- an affluent suburb having a terrible time adapting to an era of reduced government spending.

In recent weeks:

L * County workers staged a "sleep-in" to protest budget cuts.

They urged the council to endorse a preliminary budget that 1) keeps programs and jobs intact, 2) hikes property taxes 9 percent, raises local income taxes 20 percent and imposes yet another big jump in the local energy tax, and 3) leaves the county $100 million in the red.

One council member called this plan "just a dream." Another said it was "surreal." A third described it as "totally unrealistic." Then the council passed the plan.

* Montgomery's teachers union started a "job action" to protest budget cuts. "It's not our intent to hurt kids," said the union's president. Some of teachers are showing their concern for the students by refusing to write college recommendations for seniors unless their parents harangue county officials about education cuts.

* In the midst of this money crisis, the council found $59,000 to pay for four works of public art. Efforts to cut the money failed after one councilman said, "Montgomery County will have sunk to a new low in terms of beauty, aesthetics and culture" without these art works.

Yet Montgomery is not alone in side-stepping reality. Everything is sacred. Nothing can be cut.

In Baltimore County, school officials fell prey to a different special-interest group -- school marching bands. They rescinded cost-reduction move to end transportation for music groups after furious protests. So in the midst of a budget crunch, eight bands will travel to two parades this semester. Cost: $8,000.

In Baltimore City, fire fighters don't want any stations closed or a single fireman laid off. The city's antiquated fire-protection system is sacrosanct. How would the union solve the problem? Raise state taxes.

The state's teachers don't want one more cent taken out of education budgets to balance the government's books. The union's solution? Higher state taxes.

What would those taxes be used for? More pay for teachers, of course.

Some union officials don't see the need for cuts. In Anne HTC Arundel, where teachers got a cumulative 27 percent raise the past three years, the union president remarked, "If times are so tight, why do I still need my trash picked up twice a week?"

Another Arundel school union leader tried a different tack: "To ask the people to take a pay cut will take food from their tables."

Meanwhile, the president of the state teachers union had a simple solution to the problem: "Let's get the money. . . . It went into the pockets of rich people."

Baltimore's new comptroller has her own plan. She couldn't go into details, she said election night, but it would mean lower property taxes, no layoffs and no cuts in services. Nirvana, here we come.

That feeling is shared by a councilwoman in Howard County, who opposed a layoff plan because, she maintained, the economy could pick up. Wishful thinking seems to be reaching epidemic proportions.

The situation is no better in Annapolis. State troopers strong-armed legislators into repealing layoffs by panicking them into believing criminals would run rampant. Cut somewhere else, they said. All the governor wanted to do was reduce certain highway patrols.

Champions of the state's Shock Trauma Center warn of total collapse if budget cuts take effect. That's the same doomsday tactic the late R Adams Cowley used to keep Shock Trauma untouchable. Now new leaders seek a tax dedicated exclusively to Shock Trauma.

That's what the University of Maryland College Park wants, too, to secure permanent prosperity on campus. Two schools at the university's downtown professional campus, meanwhile, are also seeking exemption from the recession: both the law school and the social work school are fighting proposed cuts.

And how is UM's board of regents reacting? By proceeding with $43 million in academic enhancements, building repairs and merit pay raises -- even while firing workers and eliminating course offerings.

No wonder Gov. William Donald Schaefer can't find a consensus. Too many vested interests want to be shielded from cutbacks. Too many politicians want to lead the "no new taxes" cheers. And too few state and local legislators have the courage to face up to the painful fiscal realities.

Maybe if all of them close their eyes and make a wish, their budget problems will simply disappear.

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