'Cut that Man Behind the Tree'

COMMENT

October 30, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Russell Long, the former legendary chairman of the U.S. Senate's Finance Committee, used to explain the American public's attitude toward tax policy with this little refrain: "Don't tax me, don't tax thee, tax that man behind the tree."

Mr. Long retired from the Senate eight years ago, but his little ditty still rings true. However, to be absolutely current it needs a second verse -- "Don't cut me, don't cut thee, cut that man behind the tree."

Politicians running this year have hammered away at dTC government spending, but specifying which government programs -- beyond welfare -- need trimming produces only silence.

We have seen it on the national level, with Democrats and Republicans avoiding the tough budget decisions necessary to reduce the federal deficit. The politicians work themselves into a lather against entitlement spending, but don't ask them to name which parts of this year's $835 billion in federal entitlement spending they would cut.

Afraid of the clout of senior citizens, even such self-proclaimed, anti-spending advocates as Maryland's Sixth District Congressman Roscoe Bartlett are silent when it comes to

cutting the $335 billion in Social Security expenditures or the $177 billion in Medicare payments. Even though those two items are now two-fifths of the federal budget, Mr. Bartlett demurs when asked whether Social Security recipients should receive an annual cost-of-living allowance.

Democrats are no better. Social Security reform is the last subject they will talk about. Senator Long considered it the "third rail" of American politics -- touch it and you are killed instantly. Just witness how fast the Clinton administration scurried away from Budget Director Alice Rivlin's memo on the policy options available to reduce the deficit.

It is considered political suicide to mention reducing Social Security payments or increasing taxation of retirement incomes.

Also untouchable are $7 billion in agricultural price supports, $20 billion in veterans payments and $74 billion in federal retirement outlays.

On the state level, everybody is railing against welfare spending as if that were the sole source of the state's budget problems.

Nobody bothers to note that 1994 spending by the state Department of Human Resources on public assistance is $42 million less than it was in 1992. Last year, $367 million was appropriated compared to the $409 million distributed in 1992.

Even if welfare spending were totally eliminated, that would still mean the state's budget would be about $12.9 billion.

During the austere years of the early 1990s, the governor and legislature eliminated about 5,500 positions from state payrolls and reduced the growth in state expenditures by about $1 billion. Considering the pain of the last round of budget-cutting -- when state police and Medevac helicopters showed up on the chopping block -- there won't be much enthusiasm for another round of cuts.

Because the state must have a balanced budget and tax revenues have not recovered as projected, legislators are already looking at reducing state spending by $150 million when they convene next year.

It is pretty safe to assume that if taxes are to be reduced, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey promises, state government spending will be slashed.

State grants to localities will probably be one of the first areas targeted. If that is the case, Carroll has reason to worry. In the 1993 fiscal year, Carroll received $61.7 million, or one-third of its total revenue, from state grants, according to the Maryland Department of Fiscal Services.

To maintain the same level of services, the commissioners would have to consider increasing the property and piggyback taxes and look at imposing new ones. If higher taxes are unpalatable, that means cutting county government spending. Since about 54 percent of the county budget is devoted to education -- which requires more money as more children pour into the system, not less -- the cuts will have to targeted at the remainder of the budget.

After the sharp reductions of the last several years, this round will mean reducing hours at or closing libraries; curtailing support for senior centers; cutting back classes at the Carroll Community College, and curtailing the amount of snow removal and salting during winter storms.

The cruel joke is that if the public wants these services, somebody has to pay for them. During the Reagan years, the federal government stopped paying for programs and the states picked up the costs because people wanted many of them to continue.

Now we are witnessing a political movement to end state payments, which shifting the costs to local governments. When property taxes hit the roof, there will be a rebellion against local taxes. Which means we will have to decide which services we expect from any level of government.

By that time, the man behind the tree will be long gone.

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

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