Chance of a Lifetime

BARRY RASCOVAR

February 02, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

For Maryland's General Assembly, the chance of a lifetime is at hand.

That may seem an absurd pronouncement with legislators bleakly staring at a $1.2 billion deficit and a "doomsday" scenario laid out by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a budget alternative last Thursday.

Yet the huge size of Maryland's fiscal dilemma and the loud clamor from the state's populace for a long-term solution give lawmakers a window of opportunity that is unlikely to reappear in this decade.

The quick-fix answer calls for a sweeping array of tax increases that would wipe out nearly all the deficit. Add in earlier budget cuts and more hold-downs in the growth of future government spending, and the state could balance its books with money left over to enhance education and a few select programs elsewhere.

But that course could prove disastrous. Government spending would continue to expand faster than the state's flow of income. The much-derided "tax and spend" philosophy would remain in place. And worst of all, this solution could precipitate an angry voter rebellion.

On the other extreme is the Republican alternative, simply cutting another $1 billion or more from the state's budget:

Abolish all state scholarships, even to dirt-poor youngsters, and saddle them with loans that must be paid upon graduation; cut Medicaid and welfare payments to the bone; abolish the state prosecutor's office that pursues wrongdoing by elected officials (including legislators); abolish the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments (who needs regional cooperation?); sell BWI Airport to the highest bidder.

The problem with this approach is that we don't even know how much some of these cuts will save. Nor did Republicans check into the ramifications of these cuts. They remain a slim minority, unable to exert much influence in Annapolis. Their proposal amounts to strategic political posturing for the next election. Their "no more taxes" approach is possible, but only if lawmakers are willing to make Draconian cuts.

Somewhere in between these two extremes lies a feasible solution. But simply balancing the state's books isn't enough. Citizens are demanding wholesale changes in the way government operates. Why won't legislators seize on this demand to do exactly that?

Dramatic shifts can now be made in how government delivers services, and changes can be made in what services are delivered. Special interests will scream, but the general public will applaud. For once, it could be to a legislator's advantage to heed the public's plea rather than curry favor with vested interests.

Why not abolish government departments and merge their functions with other agencies?

Why not alter state aid formulas so they are focused only on the state's poorest citizens?

Why not eliminate or consolidate redundant functions in government agencies, such as personnel and public relations?

Why not revamp the way agencies operate?

And for goodness sake, why not get rid of programs that aren't absolutely essential?

Given the strong support among constituents for this approach, why do legislators hesitate? Why are they so fearful of acting?

House and Senate leaders are frustrated by this indecision. Separate efforts by Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Sen. Laurence Levitan to find a consensus have collapsed. No one wants to harm existing programs. Yet no wants to raise taxes, either. Legislators don't want to do anything.

This underlines the lack of quality among elected officials in Annapolis. Few state legislators have the vision and fortitude to do what is right; they do what is expedient. Few are willing to take advantage of public sentiment to be daring. Their main concern is getting re-elected, not making a lasting contribution.

Yet there will never be a better time to pursue innovative approaches that challenge the status quo. Franklin Roosevelt had such a chance in the early 1930s, and he seized the moment vTC -- and altered history. The 1990s seem to be offering politicians on the state level a similar moment when they can shake government to its foundations.

But no one in the General Assembly has stepped forward with the foresight and the political moxie to be so daring. Virtually all the senators and delegates are paralyzed by the gnawing fear that they may take the wrong step and make tens of thousands of Marylanders unhappy -- and that they will be defeated when they run for reelection.

How ironic: these 188 legislators have before them a truly unique opportunity to change government for the better. And they don't have the courage to act.

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