Investing in Maryland's Future

January 18, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER | DANIEL BERGER,Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Don't pity legislators in Annapolis who are forced to decide between tax increases and service decreases. Don't sympathize with those who cringe and hide. They wanted the job. Some even went to embarrassing lengths to get it.

What is the job? It is deciding on the future for everyone. If they didn't want to face the tough decisions, they chose the wrong line of half-time work.

This session should be their finest hour, the reason they aspired to represent the people. It is their biggest game, come down to overtime and the coach sent them in to carry the ball. They should relish every minute.

So far, reaction to Governor Schaefer's state-of-the-state address has dwelled on the revenue side. Such luminaries as Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Sen. Laurence Levitan and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein react as though taxation is an issue without a trade-off, as though services and programs do not have to be evaluated in the same breath. You pay for what you get, and the corollary is that you don't get what you don't pay for. So it is important for legislators to specify what in the way of accustomed programs and services should be sacrificed to avoid the onerous taxation from which they wish to save us. In other words, wait till they get a budget to react against.

So far, it looks as if some of the key players in Annapolis want to shoot down Governor Schaefer as badly as if he were in the opposite party and running for president, neither of which he is. When politicians shoot at each other at budget time, their aim is lousy. Taxpayer-consumers absorb the crossfire.

The trouble with politicians is that they too often choose not to see beyond the next election. Would a legislator ever do what was right, knowing it would cost him re-election, merely because it was right?

We have examples in history of people who would rather be right than president. But it's hard to find someone who demonstrably would rather be right than congressman or state senator. Incumbency first, national security as it can be afforded, is the great American priority.

It is conventional to urge that politicians be more like business leaders. Nothing could be wronger. The same failing is true of huge, publicly held companies. Everything is done for the next quarterly statement, never mind the long-term health of the firm. Too many companies sacrifice the next decade for the next quarter, and too few do the reverse.

Yes, we want government leaders to be businesslike. But not if ''businesslike'' means looting income for CEO compensation while raising debt beyond what the firm can handle; embittering employees on whom the quality of the product depends; raising dividends sufficient to fool Wall Street while gutting research and development for the next generation; using the temporary shield of protection from foreign competition to skim profits or buy into other industries without streamlining operations to thrive when the protection ends; pushing loans for commercial real-estate jTC development where information is abundant that the region is overbuilt years beyond what the market will absorb.

Looking at Maryland as a business, we need to hold taxes down to what people can afford, partly for the quality of their lives and partly to keep this state competitively attractive for economically productive people and companies to reside in.

But to the same end, we also need to maintain the quality of life and education and improve their weak links. (What is the connection between a state-of-the-art high-technology firm considering location in Howard County and the Baltimore city school drop-out rate? Everything. The future Howard County work force is being trained in Baltimore city schools today.)

This means the state's recent bold vision of raising the quality ohigher education and research needs to be maintained. It does not mean that every program is sacred. It does mean that we should invest so that every institution from College Park to whatever they are going to call Baltimore's community college is demonstrably improved.

It means that the social safety net for the poor be patched where torn, lest there be more homeless, sick, despairing, nihilistic, criminal and mad people pestering us in a few years than there are today. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a mere urban problem. Among the lines drawn by society that its outcastes ignore are county boundaries.

In the narrowest commercial sense, this means that the Enoch Pratt Free Library's state resource Central Library be stocked with the best and latest economic and technical materials.

In a broader sense, it means that crime be fought more effectively so that all who wish to live by the law may do so in peace and safety everywhere in Maryland.

When legislators face those tough tax-and-spend decisions, they should evaluate the effects of any action on Maryland next April but also five years from now, and ten and twenty. Lawmakers should be like those business leaders who invest wisely for the long term and not suicidally for the next quarterly statement.

Maryland does need short-term recession relief. But even more important, it needs to avoid long-term damage that costs more to repair than was ever saved.

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