First Government Says 'Aha!' Then It Says 'Oops!'

BARRY RASCOVAR

October 31, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Why doesn't government work well? Look no further than at those who set policy. They are great at proposing sweeping changes, but spend little time on the ramifications -- and no time at all on how to get from here to there.

Take the case of the revised Clean Air Act. All those pro-environment legislators in Washington embraced this proposal. They eagerly agreed to tough new standards for areas with high levels of pollution. But now that the impact of these new standards is becoming clear, they may end up regretting their well-meaning actions.

For the Baltimore area, what's being proposed is not only unworkable but also a sure way to chase business out of downtown and all the way to suburban Washington. You'd end up with a less polluted city but the cost is prohibitive.

Each business would have to force a certain number of employees to stop commuting to work in their cars. The resulting furor will surely convince some companies to pick up and leave the area rather than alienate their work force.

Even worse, this area doesn't have enough commuting options available to make such a change work. How, for instance, will commuters from Columbia get to downtown Baltimore? There aren't enough buses and there's no light-rail or commuter rail line.

That's the flaw in the government's proposal. No one in $l Washington bothered to consider what steps had to be taken before imposing these tougher clean-air standards.

Prior to forcing people out of their cars, how about building some decent commuting alternatives? Yet there was no money flowing from Washington for this purpose. Instead, Congress is earmarking a paltry $3 million for light rail, $10 million for the Johns Hopkins subway extension under way, $24 million for new MARC cars -- and a staggering $200 million for a Washington-area Metro expansion, even though that area doesn't have to comply with the new clean-air mandates.

Not only has Congress set Baltimore up for failure, these new mandates could well contribute to the further decline of urban centers. If you make it hard for people to use their cars for $H commuting to work, you're going to have an unhappy populace on your hands. Eventually, businesses will get the message and move out of town.

Here's another example. Both Washington and Annapolis are talking about reforming the welfare system with some kind of ''workfare'' arrangement and a limit to how long an individual can stay on the dole. Sounds good in theory. It sounded very good when Bill Clinton mentioned it on the campaign trail.

But a crucial middle step is missing: If you're going to force people to work, shouldn't you first make sure there are enough jobs out there for them?

Where is the president going to come up with the 1.5 million new jobs needed under his plan?

How in the world does he expect the plan to work without first addressing such fundamental questions as how these minimum-wage jobs will provide enough money for parents to pay for day care, health care and other necessities?

L Once again, government is putting the cart before the horse.

The same thing could well be happening in health care reform. ''Managed care'' is all the rage. Washington and Annapolis want to force people to shift into health-maintenance organizations or some other type of managed-care option.

But shouldn't government look before it leaps?

Annapolis, for instance, wants state workers to join HMOs, yet in some parts of Maryland, there aren't enough HMOs available and the available ones don't offer specialized services. People may be willing to try an HMO, but only if it is a fully viable option.

Governments ought to get their priorities straight. Before enacting a sweeping change, Washington or Annapolis ought to set out an implementation plan that includes the money needed to make the transition possible.

Washington might, for instance, have better attacked the air-pollution problem by dumping billions of dollars into the search for an inexpensive electric car. It might first want to create a couple million new jobs before considering a work-for-welfare program. It might first ensure that there are sufficient numbers of managed-care options in each community before revamping the health-care industry.

Government is becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution. All those do-gooders in Washington and Annapolis need a reality check. Maybe if Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes had been forced to commute to Washington each day by bus, they'd have had second thoughts about enacting a law that could well inconvenience thousands of Baltimore-area commuters without providing a decent alternative to the car.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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