Hayden, Caught in the Middle, Shows Leadership

BARRY RASCOVAR

March 29, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

*TC Message to Roger Hayden: welcome to the real world. Your extended honeymoon is over. Friends who helped put you in office have turned on you -- quite savagely. Even your achievements are being belittled and denigrated as insufficient.

The Baltimore County executive finds himself fleeing from the brat-bats being hurled by the anti-tax fanatics and by unionized teachers. Meanwhile, his economic development director's generous expense-account practices are bringing ridicule to the Hayden regime at the same time the county's retiring education czar is being called on the carpet for slipshod management.

To top it all off, Mr. Hayden's personal marital problems have surfaced with a vengeance. They are the talk of Towson. Yet that is the least of the troubles confronting the county executive right now. No. 1 on his list is a potential budget deficit of $65 million over the next 15 months.

The county's legislators in Annapolis gave him virtually no support in getting the piggyback income tax raised from 50 percent to 60 percent.

They were more intent on assuring their re-election by voting against any tax increase. It was a classic example of profiles in cowardice, in which only Sen. Janice Piccinini and Delegates Leon Albin, Leslie Hutchinson and Michael Weir had enough courage to put aside politics and do what was best for their county and state.

Still, even if Mr. Hayden gets the new taxing power, he has to win over a conservative council. Given the irrationality of the anti-tax crowd, that could be difficult. The extra money would relieve pressure on Mr. Hayden to take one of two distasteful steps: 1) raise property tax rates, or 2) cut heavily into the education budget.

The piggyback increase, after subtracting cuts being made by the state in local aid, would generate $34 million. With some fancy footwork and help from the economy, Mr. Hayden might be able to tightrope himself through this recession without further large-scale cuts in services or a property-tax hike.

But he is no longer the hero of both anti-taxers and county workers. Mr. Hayden was swept into office on a tidal wave of anti-incumbent, anti-tax, anti-government sentiment. He has cut millions from the county budget in an attempt to reduce unnecessary expenses. For his trouble, he has been condemned by the teachers for making too many cuts, and denounced by the anti-tax fanatics for not going far enough.

It was inevitable Mr. Hayden would not satisfy both of these interest groups. They rallied around Mr. Hayden in 1990 to punish incumbent Dennis Rasmussen, who was blamed by them for not giving teachers big enough pay raises and not lowering the property tax. Now, those same groups are after Mr. Hayden's head.

While Mr. Rasmussen gave teachers and county workers smaller-than-requested pay raises, Mr. Hayden has given them no pay raises. And much like Mr. Rasmussen, the county executive is pushing for a higher piggyback tax hike -- and even discussing raising the property tax. Some cynics are calling the county executive "Roger Rasmussen."

At least, Mr. Hayden is facing up to his duties as an elected official. He has cut just about all he can from county government without causing long-term pain to county residents. So he is doing the only responsible thing: swallowing hard and coming out in favor of higher taxes.

Running government is not a cheap enterprise. It is costly to tend to the needs of a growing suburb. The county government's heating, air-conditioning and electric bills increase just as rapidly as the home owner's. The county jail is bursting at the seams with new inmates. Welfare cases are rapidly rising. The school system needs a huge number of new schools, extra teachers to handle a sharp rise in new students and gobs of money to keep the school system competitive with surrounding counties.

Mr. Hayden knows that unlike the county's delegation in Annapolis, he cannot abandon his responsibility to his constituents. He cannot let the schools rot, or empty the jails of excess inmates, or cut back on police enforcement or on social services for the poor. Ernest Hemingway called it "grace under pressure." For a political leader, though, such moments can be exceedingly uncomfortable. But that is what separates true leaders from the pretenders.

The Baltimore region has been fortunate in that its county executives have displayed this type of courage -- Robert Neall in Anne Arundel, Charles Ecker in Howard, Eileen Rehrmann in Harford and Mr. Hayden in Baltimore County. The two Washington-area executives, Parris Glendening in Prince George's and Neal Potter in Montgomery, have also shown fortitude. So has Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

But what about legislative courage? That's been sadly lacking. State legislators, especially from Baltimore County, have only one thing in mind: survival. For them, the purpose of holding elective office is to hang onto the job (and its perks and ego-gratification). That's a sad commentary. They'd rather watch Athe county sink than risk their political necks. Some statesmen.

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