The Cost of Good Government

January 09, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It was 20 years ago next week that the first of these contributions appeared on this page. There have been almost 1,500 of them since, which seems like a lot but really isn't. If you set all those words in one standard-width newspaper column they wouldn't even make a mile.

The Sun was a different paper then, and the world was a different world. Richard Nixon was still in the White House, there were long lines at American gasoline stations, and in South Vietnam a rickety regime was tottering but hadn't yet collapsed. Yet in many respects, the Maryland of 1974 was reassuringly similar to the Maryland of today.

It had a million fewer people and 3,000 more farms, but although there was a Democrat from Baltimore in the governor's mansion and a rural-county speaker of the House of Delegates, the state was already dominated politically, economically and socially by its suburbs. The decline of Baltimore and the stagnation of rural areas too far away to profit from metropolitan growth were well established trends.

Government didn't cost as much in 1974 as it does now, but it was getting bigger and more expensive all the time, and especially in an election year there was a lot of talk about that. The state budget proposed that January by Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was running for a second full term, was for $2.7 billion. That seemed a stunning amount, particularly to people who had been around for a while.

Some of the more spending- conscious legislators and staff members reminded me, as the 1974 session of the General Assembly began, that the 1950 budget submitted by Gov. William Preston Lane had been for $73 million -- with another $23 million in unexpended state funds on hand in case it might be needed. Since then, while Maryland's population had doubled, the cost of running its state government had increased 37-fold.

I thought that interesting, but only in a theoretical way. In 1974 I hadn't been watching governments all that long, but I thought I understood them pretty well. They always seemed to grow rapidly, and I'd never yet seen one run out of money. Sure they were wasteful, and sure they were often corrupt, but I thought that was part of the process, and didn't want to seem like a crackpot by carping about it.

In preparing to write a regular column for The Sun I'd read a lot of H.L. Mencken, and he seemed to have taken a similar view. ''The plain people of Baltimore,'' he'd observed, ''are always in favor of what reformers call political corruption. They believe it keeps money in circulation, and makes for a spacious and stimulating communal life.''

Besides, from my perspective in 1974, William Preston Lane might as well have been Ulysses S. Grant. He was a historical figure, not a person. All I knew about him was that a bridge had been named after him -- and that he had been voted out in 1950 for giving the state its first sales tax, a horrifying 2 per cent. Politicians used to cite Governor Lane as an illustration of the principle that it's much less dangerous to raise an old tax than to create a new one.

Since 1974, Maryland's population has increased by only about 25 percent, and the cost of its government something like 450 percent. That's still a lot, but a legislator who had been around since the Lane days -- retiring state Sen. Fred Malkus is now the only one left -- could argue that the rate of spending hasn't gone up as much in the last 20 years as in the 20 years before that.

In 1974, taxes and the cost of government didn't seem to be the major irritants that they would later become. Governor Mandel's $2.7 billion budget represented a lot of money, but it was carefully balanced. This was 18 years before the day when William Donald Schaefer would be talking about a looming billion-dollar deficit in the state budget, and demanding new taxes to make it go away.

Mr. Mandel had the traditional Democrat's belief that more government is always better than less, and he left Maryland's vastly bigger than he found it. But even so, while he was in office he was considered a good manager and seldom criticized on fiscal matters. He would have other problems aplenty, but in 1974 they were still over the horizon.

To the General Assembly in 1974, the real annoyances were a nasty Baltimore teachers' strike and, even more galling, the fact that gasoline was in short supply and they couldn't do much about it. Mr. Mandel had imposed rationing, but there was legislative distress that more laws and decrees apparently weren't going to produce more fuel. ''We've got to give emergency powers to somebody,'' declared Sen. Arthur Dorman Prince George's County. But fortunately the situation improved before anyone figured out to whom.

In that respect, something important seems to have changed since 1974. Legislatures, and not just Maryland's, have begun to realize that when they try to solve a complex problem by enacting new laws the chances are very good they'll make it worse. The 1994 General Assembly is more chastened than was 1974's, and may be a little less likely to enact new idiocies.

You can consider that a prediction, if you like, but don't bank on it. I rummaged through 20 years' worth of files before writing this, and discovered to my shock and horror that predictions made in this space haven't always come true.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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