When the roof falls in

January 14, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- This winter has been filled with vivid and forceful reminders of the axiom that actions have consequences, sometimes serious ones.

A truly stupendous snowfall collapses a shed on top of a herd of cows in western Maryland killing 200. The shed was quite new. If it had been built to, say, Minnesota standards, it would be standing today. But the dairyman, who runs a large, modern and presumably highly cost-conscious operation, chose to save some construction money. It was not an unreasonable decision. In Maryland, after all, we don't usually get 30 inches of snow all at once. But it had its consequences.

Even farther out in western Maryland, the Garrett County economy suffers a collapse of another kind. Its major employer, Bausch & Lomb, shuts down the Oakland plant where for the last 25 years it has been making lenses for sunglasses. Some 600 jobs are lost, and the lives of at least that many families disrupted.

The causes of the Bausch & Lomb shutdown are more complex than those of the collapse that killed the cows, but there are similarities. In each case, what seemed at the time to be quite reasonable decisions led to unintended but devastating consequences.

In the wake of those consequences, important new decisions now have to be made. The farmer presumably will elect to build a stronger shed. The laid-off Bausch & Lomb workers will have to look for new jobs, probably a long drive away from home. And the state of Maryland, whose business climate was cited by the departing company as a major reason why it was moving to Texas, has to consider whether it's willing to do anything to correct that.

In some cases, businesses pack up and leave an area because they don't like the local government, the local work force, or the local living conditions. But this doesn't appear to have been the case with Bausch & Lomb. Pleasant, mountain-top Garrett County was accommodating to the company, and labor relations didn't appear to be a problem. The laws, regulations, attitudes and policies that helped persuade Bausch & Lomb to head for Texas emanated from Annapolis, not from Oakland.

All of these go back a long way in Maryland, and it wouldn't be fair to blame them on the year-old Glendening administration. But it's reasonable to think that if Governor Glendening had campaigned and then governed in a business-friendly fashion, corporate headquarters at Bausch & Lomb would have had a much harder time deciding to pull the plug on the Garrett County plant.

Texas, where most of those 600 lost jobs are going, has a right-to-work law, which prohibits compulsory union membership. Staunchly pro-union Maryland not only has no such law, it's never even heard serious debate in the General Assembly on one.

This year in Annapolis, several right-to-work bills are likely to be introduced. They won't pass, and with union membership in private industry steadily diminishing they're probably not of great practical significance anyway. But the vote they get will have symbolic importance. It will send a signal about the direction Maryland's heading.

Meanwhile, where do we find the governor? Not backing right-to-work, that's a cinch. Instead he's in firm support of collective bargaining for public employees, the last real redoubt of organized labor. This suggests that his labor-relations model for Maryland isn't Texas, it's France.

To those making the business decisions that will either create or eliminate Maryland jobs, state fiscal policy -- meaning taxes and spending -- is another important indicator. And here we find the governor and much of the legislative leadership already in nervous retreat from proposals for reductions in taxes and spending.

Back in Upper Marlboro

(Parenthetically, it's interesting to see that in Prince George's County, where former County Executive Glendening departed for Annapolis leaving behind him a $100 million budget deficit, his successor Wayne Curry -- also a Democrat -- has been downsizing local government in a way that would make Newt Gingrich proud.)

In a report last month, the Spending Affordability Committee of the Maryland General Assembly concluded that ''the fiscal challenge of the 1996 session will be to fund essential services while maintaining a level of taxation consistent with necessary economic growth.''

What that means, but doesn't say, is that unless the state government taxes less, even if that means spending less as well, there could be some serious consequences. There might not be any economic growth at all, and when that happens the roof really does fall in.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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