They'll Promise Us the World

August 28, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Beware of candidates making promises they cannot keep. That ought to be the byword of Maryland voters this political season. The horde running for governor has promised to solve nearly every societal ill short of curing cancer.

Democrat Parris Glendening is going to fix our economic development woes by ''growing the economy.'' But the economy can't be equated to raising hogs or soybeans.

Republican Helen Bentley pledges to wipe away the crime crisis with a $1 billion plan that is long on tough-sounding solutions but seems to defy reality. She is silent on how she will pay for it all.

Republican Ellen Sauerbrey promises to cut taxes 24 percent and erase a $1 billion deficit. Simple arithmetic works against her. No wonder she's having trouble coming up with real-world numbers to back up her plan.

These are just three of the sweeping promises made this election year. Let's look at the things the candidates are trying to cure.

* Economic development. All the contenders pound the Schaefer administration for failing to turn Maryland into a Nirvana of jobs. They pledge to do a better job, cut red tape and give this state a pro-business environment. Sound familiar?

Back in 1986, William Donald Schaefer roundly criticized the outgoing Hughes administration for its lethargic attitude toward economic growth. Then-Mayor Schaefer even dispatched his own entourage from the city to Western Maryland to plot a growth strategy -- to show Mr. Schaefer was a can-do politician.

But wait. Eight years earlier, then-candidate Harry Hughes blasted the incumbent acting governor, Blair Lee III, and the old Mandel administration for failing to boost economic development. A controversial critique by ex-cabinet secretary Joseph Anastasi detailed the state's anti-business climate.

So for the past 20 years, Maryland governors have been labeled as anti-business and weak on luring jobs. Harry Hughes promised to change things -- but didn't. Donald Schaefer promised to change things -- but now candidates say he didn't (though that is debatable).

L Why should we believe the next governor will work a miracle?

This state's economic climate is the captive of two hard-to-change elements: the national economy and Maryland's own history. Mr. Glendening may think he can "grow the economy," but if there's another recession he won't even be able grow potatoes, much less jobs.

Then there are the historic strong ties between labor and politicians in Maryland, which account for much of the distrust of business reflected in the legal hurdles and regulatory roadblocks erected in front of corporations. A more recent trend, Maryland's strong environmental movement, has added red tape and bureaucratic tangles for businesses.

Reversing these trends in a single term may be beyond the capabilities of any governor.

* Crime. Guess what? Every candidate wants to get tough on criminals -- keep them in jail longer, make them serve "hard time," throw away the key on frequent offenders. But when you dig below the surface, the candidates may not be able to actually cut the crime rate.

How, for instance, will Mrs. Bentley pay for $1 billion in tougher laws for convicts? How will she get federal judges to allow double-celling to save money when all other governors nationwide have failed? How will she save money by building new prisons on abandoned federal reservations -- like Bainbridge -- when earlier studies to do the same thing found it would cost more, not less?

While candidates are tough on keeping criminals in jail longer, they don't address the real problems: beefing up local law

enforcement efforts or providing more drug-treatment programs. lTC That would cost a lot of state money to be effective.

But is crime something a governor in the State House can attack? After all, crime is a local problem that needs a local solution. Washington and Annapolis can send the locals extra aid, but not much else.

* Budget deficit and tax cuts. Any candidate who promises to wipe out a $1 billion four-year deficit by cutting "waste, fraud and abuse" is commiting consumer fraud.

Here's why: So much of the state budget is tied up in mandated programs and local aid (primarily for schools), there's little left to slash. In the past four years, Governor Schaefer chopped state agencies and found ways to cut local aid mandates by $334 million. Yet in that same time, uncapped mandates (prisons, welfare, Medicaid) and school aid rose $600 million!

What's driving up expenses are more prisoners, more poor people on Medicaid and welfare, more federal mandates. Can any future governor stem this tide? Not entirely.

Some improvement might happen by implementing the kinds of downsizing discussed in the Butta commission report: making painful decisions to eliminate certain government services, shifting the fiscal burden to local governments and trimming school aid.

But that would be extraordinarily tough to accomplish. Tacking on a 24 percent tax cut, as Ms. Sauerbrey does, is a -- of Reaganomics sure to widen the short-term red ink -- without any assurance the long-term results would be beneficial.

So don't be bamboozled by the sweeping claims of candidates for governor. They speak in political hyperbole.

Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

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