Politicians selling snake oil

January 11, 1994

As we enter a big political year in Maryland, voters should beware of candidates selling snake oil as a cure-all for the state's ills.

Such demagogic rhetoric is already being heard. Candidates for governor have jumped on the "get-tough-with-criminals" bandwagon and jumped off the "Give Baltimore the (foot)ball" bandwagon, in the process promising all sorts of illusory benefits. The worst offender has been Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, whose answer to the crime problem is to kill the Baltimore football stadium project and use the money to abolish parole and build more prisons to house extra inmates.

There's only one flaw: killing the stadium project won't yield enough cash to build the guard houses, much less the jail cells. The football coliseum would be built largely with revenue bonds -- proceeds from the stadium itself (and instant lotteries) would underwrite the construction. There's little surplus cash to tap.

Where would he get the other money to build new prisons (costing $300 or $400 million) and to house 4,000 more prisoners (costing $70 million a year)? Why, from the state's "rainy day fund" set aside for hard financial times such as the recent recession. Draining that fund to build prisons can't be done -- the money can be tapped only for true fiscal emergencies. Besides, there's not enough money in the fund to build even a mini-prison.

Mr. Miedusiewski is not alone in peddling elixirs. House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey also wants to do away with parole and build 4,000 prison beds. How will she pay for it? Simply cut elsewhere in the state budget -- but she never tells voters where those cuts would be made or which programs would bite the dust.

Even Lt. Gov Melvin A. Steinberg has gotten into the act. He, too, suddenly wants to can the Baltimore stadium project (while backing Jack Kent Cooke's stadium in Laurel despite a potentially giant bill to the state for road improvements). He's already spent this nonexistent $200 million in stadium bonds for schools, public safety and transportation. The public is being sold a bill of goods.

As the election year unfolds, voters ought to be on guard against politicians peddling nostrums with no real medicinal value. The public should insist candidates present realistic solutions. For instance, if a candidate wants to do away with parole and build more prisons, the candidate should tell voters how taxpayers can afford such a plan and where new prisons would be built. Marylanders should insist they be given the good medicine and the bad -- minus any snake oil potions.

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