What's Government For, Anyway? ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

April 07, 1993

Anne Arundel Executive Robert R. Neall will hurt many worthy cultural institutions and community organizations if he follows through on his proposal to do away with county grants in fiscal 1994. And yet, governments at all levels must start taking a hard look at expenditures such as the county's grant program if they hope to save themselves.

Neither the federal government, with its $4 trillion deficit, nor Anne Arundel, with $65 million in state cuts and a voter-approved tax cap, can afford to merely snip and pare any longer. Most politicians continue to take this tack; it's safer to cut a little of this and that than to enrage special interests by eliminating programs. Ultimately, however, these stop-gap measures do nothing about the systemic problem that has led to economic crisis -- namely, that government tries to do too much.

What should the purpose of government really be? That question begs to be answered.

In recent years, local government has involved itself in everything from after-school day-care to highway beautification. In 1991, when grants funding hit an all-time high of $2.3 million, the county spent $125,000 to plant shrubs in median strips. Today, cost-conscious pols openly disdain such frills. But they have a harder time making decisions about programs that, while valuable, may not be the government's responsibility.

After-school day-care, which Mr. Neall wants to privatize, and the grants program are good examples. The day-care program, offered in several elementary schools, serves a crying need. But should government be in the child care business? Similarly, grants support many valuable causes, from aid to the poor to teen recreation programs to the arts. These are not mere frills; they enhance our quality of life and provide jobs. Still, we must ask: Is it government's job to subsidize each and every one of these activities?

This is not to say we should return to the days when local government did nothing but provide public safety. In a society with as many complex problems as ours, there is a place for activist government. But government must learn to make the hard choices. It must decide what is its business and what is not. If fiscal hardship forces Mr. Neall and other leaders into making those decisions, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

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