PRIVATIZATION is one of the buzzwords we're hearing a lot these days in Maryland and Baltimore City. Supposedly, private contractors can run things like the Convention Center, the Maryland Stadium Authority and BWI more efficiently than the civil servants who are now responsible for them.
Recent experiments with privatization lend credence to this theory; the Baltimore Arena and the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., which were chronic money-losers when they were run by government hacks, have become profitable since they were turned over to private-industry managers who keep a firm eye on the bottom line.
As a taxpayer, I'm in favor of anything that makes government more efficient, including privatization. Indeed, I believe we should consider privatizing the most obnoxious, least productive part of our government: our elected officials.
Take the Maryland legislature (please). We ordinary taxpayers have trouble gettings its members to do anything that benefits us, but industry groups and trade associations -- who can make big campaign donations -- seem to get anything they want.
So why should we citizens pay legislators' salaries? Let Bruce Bereano (a famously open-handed lobbyist) pay Senate President Mike Miller's salary and expenses. Other, less prosperous lobbyists and industry representatives can pay for other, less prominent legislators.
I hate to say it, but I don't think we'll notice a lot of change in the legislature's behavior. The only difference will be that we taxpayers won't pay out-of-pocket for the annual silliness in Annapolis, and we won't feel as cheated as we do now when the legislature does something especially dumb.
By privatizing politics, we'll save all the money we now waste on elections, too. Over half of qualified voters have already opted out of the electoral process, so the whole concept of a popular vote has become nothing more than a hypocritical sham. Our politicians act accordingly. We don't bother to vote for them, they figure, so why should they do anything for us when there are people out there willing to give them cash in return for toeing the corporate line?
In a flagrant example of this kind of thinking, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who has long claimmed to have the needs of ordinary voters at heart, recently made a speech that praised the billboard industry's contribution to America's scenery -- right after she received a large "campaign contribution" from an outdoor advertising group.
I have no objection to Senator Mikulski making silly speeches in favor of keeping our highways ugly after taking money from billboard advocates; this is normal behavior for an American politician. All I ask is that Ms. Mikulski stop drawing a salary from those of us who drive on the highway she wants to see lined with ads for booze, cigarettes and other products. Let the billboard people pay Mikulski's salary if she's going to work for them. Then no one would get mad at her for advocating billboards on every mile of interstate highway in the country. Instead, we'd all respect her for doing what she is paid to do, and doing it well.
Then there's George Bush. How would he behave if his salary were paid by a consortium of bankers, Texas oilmen and wealthy investors, instead of by us taxpayers? Would he try to lower the capital gains tax rate? Advocate fewer restrictions on financial institutions? Try to weaken civil rights and environmental legislation? Send troops overseas to fight a war that, if won, would return a nasty group of oil exploiters to power in a country that has gouged America for a decade?
Bush probably would do all of these things if his salary were paid by private industry. He's doing them anyway. So why shouldn't those who benefit the most from Bush's policies pay his salary and expenses? Better them than you and me, right?
You can see where this train of thought leads, and you've probably spotted its only flaw: Some politicians simply aren't worth buying. Baltimore City Council members, for instance, don't seem to do anything useful for anyone, so we'll probably have to go on electing them and paying their salaries ourselves, because no sane private group would want to buy this bunch.
We'll probably have to keep Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg on the public payroll, too, for the same reason. But most politicians should be worth something to someone. All we have to do is advertise for bids and watch the offers roll in.
Of course, we'll want to have a private contractor handle the bidding process because we can't trust our politicians to sell themselves. Every time they've tried, we taxpayers have taken a beating.
Robin Miller drives a taxi and lives in Baltimore.