More from the Age of Selfish Politics

COMMENT

May 22, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Workmen haven't even finished installing the traffic lights on the stretch of Route 140 between Liberty Reservoir and Interstate 795 near Pearson's restaurant. But complaints about the lights are already starting to be heard around Carroll communities.

Some Carroll commuters are grousing that they may have to slow down -- and even stop -- on their way to and from their jobs each day. They complain that stopping on the hill during snowy )) weather will be treacherous and will increase the number of accidents on that perilous strip of road.

They also whine that Baltimore County has placed the safety of the residents of the subdivisions living alongside the road ahead of their driving convenience.

The complainers seem to forget that some terrible crashes resulting in deaths have occurred on this section of road. By any fair measure, the lengthening of their commute by a couple of minutes each day is worth the possible gain in safety.

But the complainers don't see that. They just want to barrel along the road, unimpeded by traffic lights, speed limits or other drivers on the route.

This same type of self-centered thinking cropped up at the hearing on the county's budget for next year, held on May 12.

Several witnesses complained that too much of the county's budget was devoted to education. A number said that since they aren't deriving any direct benefits from education spending, money allocated for school ought to be cut.

What was so surprising is how ill-informed these opinions on education were. They ignored the fact that Carroll spends less per pupil than the state average, yet produces test scores that are among the best in Maryland.

Complainers also ignored the fact that every local government in Maryland spends between 50 percent and 55 percent of its operating budget on education. Carroll's spending on education can hardly be categorized as extravagant by any measure.

Listening to this litany of grievances and others, one can't help but think how politically selfish and bitter we have become. If policy decisions don't produce direct and immediate benefits for us, then they are no good. "If it's not my way, then it is no way"

pretty much captures this sentiment.

Politicians have been quick to recognize this attitude and capitalize on it. They purposely pander to vocal groups and constituents, promising they will get all they want.

This segmentation of the population into distinct interest groups destroys the sense of community and mutual obligation.

Take the situation at Route 140. This dangerous stretch of road has to accommodate several different sets of motorists, some with conflicting interests.

Even though most of the traffic on Route 140 is coming from Carroll and beyond, the residents of Nob Hill Park Drive and Gores Mill Road, as well as the patrons of Pearson's restaurant and Tom Mitchell's golf course, have to use the road as well.

The traffic engineers have to figure out a way to let people enter and exit their driveways and streets from Route 140 without losing their lives.

Putting up traffic lights at the intersections and creating jug handles is probably the best solution short of building a new limited-access road into Carroll -- which a majority of the county residents seem to oppose.

Nobody is totally happy, but the solution is better than allowing people to race through that short portion of road, endangering themselves and others.

People's desire to restrict government spending to that which provides direct benefits is about as destructive as the selfish desires of Carroll motorists on Route 140.

Retired county residents who are upset with school spending and would like to cut it because they don't see any direct benefits are a pretty selfish bunch. They happen to be in the minority, but you can bet there are politicians ready to play to that crowd.

If this group decides to play political hardball and attempts to curtail education spending, there is a good chance they will be the losers.

In terms of population, there were about 12,600 Carroll residents over the age of 65 in 1990, compared to 36,300 children under the age of 19. The elderly are about 10 percent of the county's population, but children comprise a third.

Children don't vote, but their parents do. Assuming that there are about as many parents as there are children in the county, that means the elderly are outnumbered three to one. If education spending becomes a political issue, and everyone votes his or her selfish interests, the elderly will lose.

During this political season, you can bet candidates will be staking out positions that cater to this narrow segment of voters. But in the end, they won't be doing themselves or these people any favors.

Whether they like it or not, the county is obligated to provide schools for its youth. With a population that is growing at a rate of about 2 percent a year, the number of children coming into the school system is also increasing. There is no magic available that can reduce education spending as the number of school-age children increases.

Catering to the self-interested groups only encourages them to make more outrageous demands and makes it difficult for elected officials to craft sound public policy.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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