Nightmares about November


September 25, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

I had a dream the other day.

Some people dream about romance, or conjure up ghoulish monsters that symbolize unconscious fears.

I have nightmares about politics.

This particular one centered on the prospect that Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey becomes governor, while at the same time Democrat Susan B. Gray becomes Howard County executive.

If you can imagine such a thing, you can understand what an unnerving fantasy this was, particularly because of its distinct possibilities.

Like most dreams, this was a mix of the known and the unknown. It went something like this (wake yourself up at anytime):

On inauguration day, Ms. Sauerbrey decrees a 6 percent cut in personal income tax for state residents, the first in a series of cuts that will shrink the personal income tax by 24 percent in four years.

State agency heads, sensing the inevitable, begin planning across-the-board cuts in services to the elderly, the poor, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.

News of the impending loss in services reaches county offices and ultimately the citizenry, who decry that the ax would fall their way.

Back in Annapolis, Mrs. Sauerbrey is ensconced in the governor's mansion, where she would be enjoying her plush surroundings but for the pesky phones that keep ringing.

"It's starting to sound like an angry mob out there," Mrs. Sauerbrey says to an aide. "We'd better do something."

"Well," the aide replies, "We've sort of boxed ourselves in. We promised to lower the income tax without laying off state employees.

"In fact, somebody," he says, casting a knowing glance at the governor, "promised employees a 3 percent cost-of-living increase. That means we have no choice but to cut services, which means that the counties will be forced to pay for some services on their own, which will mean higher property taxes.

"Well," says Mrs. Sauerbrey, "I've kept my promise."

Back home in Howard County, County Executive Susan Gray is kicking out the final treacherous developer.

By now, the county has a somewhat less rosy reputation in the business community. Road projects that might have served new subdivisions are put on hold. Tax revenues the county was hoping to gain from commercial development are lagging, while the pressure is on to maintain and even increase services, particularly in education.

Having promised to be more aggressive on controlling growth in the county, Ms. Gray faces her dilemma: Where is the money coming from?

tTC Ms. Sauerbrey, similarly disposed to radical policy-making but a staunch member of the opposing party, is not at home when Ms. Gray comes to call.

"What to do?" Ms. Gray wonders.

She assembles a task force and three options emerge:

* Abandon her campaign pledge, call it a "Helen Bentley-style conversion" and put an "Open For Business" sign in front of the county office building.

* Raise property taxes and risk the wrath of citizens, who have barely had a chance to spend the extra dollars they received from Mrs. Sauerbrey's income tax break.

* Cut the county budget, particularly the school system's, which is logical, of course, because it's one of the best in the state so it could probably stand some belt-tightening.

In a dark corner, one aide turns to the other, and dryly quips, " 'Can-do government' at work."

This is usually about where I wake up in a cold sweat. The prospect of finding out what Ms. Gray ultimately does is tempting, but not enough to endure the fright.

It will be interesting to see, in the cold reality of everyday life, how Ms. Gray proposes to accomplish her goals, especially if the governor's office would be occupied by Ms. Sauerbrey.

There's a symmetry about government. If residents want a high level of service, money to pay for it must come from somewhere. Ms. Gray wants to ratchet down the growth that comes from development. How, then, does she intend to make up the difference?

I'm waiting for the answers. Then, I might be able to get on dreaming about romance or monsters.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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