The insidious grasp of regionalism

September 11, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Every political generation or so the notion of regionalism, a hardy weed in the garden of government, pops up once again. Sometimes it gets quite large before the public notices and goes after it with a hoe.

Regionalism has both a tactical and a philosophical appeal. Politicians in urban jurisdictions, especially, see the concept as a way to get their fingers into the wallets of suburbanites. Do-gooders like it as a way to slip so-called progressive programs past a conservative electorate.

And every time the public whacks a new regionalism initiative down, these people shake their heads and cluck about the benighted suburbs. There's usually a certain amount of ungracious name-calling, ranging from ''ill-informed'' to (what else?) ''racist.''

The proposed Maryland constitution drafted in 1968 was a regionalist's delight. It would have allowed the General Assembly to set up multi-county governments, complete with the authority to levy taxes. The idea, then as now, was that such a structure could force the suburban counties to bail out Baltimore.

When it was presented to them on the ballot, however, Maryland's voters hooted down the wonderful new constitution of 1968. Later, some of its more sensible reforms were enacted piecemeal, but the regionalism proposals remained about as popular as cat licenses, and were never implemented. For a while, politicians were leery, and the concept languished.

It wasn't dead, though, and now, zombie-like, it walks the earth once again. This time it's wearing some fashionable new clothes provided by the Greater Baltimore Committee, but even in $40 suspenders, a yellow silk necktie and $300 reptile-hide shoes, it's the same old horror -- no more appealing than it ever was.

The GBC's recent report, ''One Region, One Future,'' sounds pretty much like all the other regionalist initiatives of the last 30 years. The city of Baltimore and the counties around it are increasingly interdependent, it says, and so it's increasingly important to share the revenues -- meaning, of course, to take more money from the counties and pump it into the leaky coffers of Schmokeville.

In fact, it can be persuasively argued that the city and the five counties around it are less interdependent than ever. The counties, in general, are flourishing, while the city is dying. And although this is certainly a problem for Baltimore and the dwindling number of people who still live there, to call it ''interdependence'' insults the intelligence of the people who under regionalism would be asked to bail it out.

Friendly feelings

Probably most of these people have feelings toward Baltimore which are fundamentally friendly. Many of them were born or grew up there. Some work there. Quite a few appreciate the city's various amenities, many of which their tax dollars helped make possible. They'd much rather live next to a healthy city than a sick one.

But the flaw in all the earnest regional-government proposals, in suburban eyes, is that they don't address the problems which have all but destroyed Baltimore and other cities.

The regionalists accept the old dogma that more money is all that's needed. Out in Havre de Grace, Manchester, Union Bridge and Shadyside, that sounds like the same discredited old spiel.

The counties are suspicious of regionalism because they see no reason to believe that sucking more money in from the suburbs will fix Baltimore's schools, end crime on Baltimore's streets, or bring about a cheerful efficiency in Baltimore's appalling municipal government. These are reforms which experience shows can't be imposed from outside. They have to begin close to home.

The regionalists love to talk about ''the global economy,'' and the role which they fancy regions -- ''natural economic areas'' -- will play in it. But if the regions are natural economic areas, why do they need to have new taxes and governments forced on them? It's quite clear that government policies at all levels have been a major cause of urban decay. So why not peel back some government, instead of adding yet another layer?

The trouble with ''the global economy'' is that for most of us it's little more than a vague concept, like the pretty idea of being ''a citizen of the world.'' It has intellectual meaning, but nothing more.

A real economy is like a real community: It's most of all local.

A limited dose of regionalism makes modest sense where there's a genuine community of interest -- on the Eastern Shore, for example, or in the rural tri-county areas of both Southern and Western Maryland. The latter two have each had a regional council without much power for many years, and the councils have occasionally done constructive things.

But a declaration by a collection of big shots that a community of interest exists in the extraordinarily diverse metropolitan area doesn't automatically make it so.

Once Baltimore truly gets its act together, the surrounding counties might be in a more cooperative mood for joint-venturing. Until then, their reservations about regionalism will look more prudent than ever.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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