Despite what candidates say, we can't have it all


September 20, 1998|By BRIAN SULLAM

MAKING FUN of politicians is a newspaperman's favorite sport.

Most of us can do it without working up much of a sweat.

Now that the campaign for the general election is under way, we can prepare ourselves for more hilarity at the expense of those who are running for public office.

One of the best at this business was H. L. Mencken, the acerbic Evening Sun columnist.

Politicians' "only object in life is to do as little honest work as they can for the most profit, whether in money, in power or mere glory," Mencken wrote in 1935. "The typical politician is not only a rascal but also a jackass, so he greatly values the puerile notoriety and adulation that sensible men try to avoid."

Indeed, some self-serving people want nothing more than a few moments in the spotlight and care little for the public's business. The number of those types in elective office, thankfully, declines every year.

Fewer people are willing to give up the intrusions and abuse elected officials regularly receive in return for a chance at 15 minutes of fame.

Even worse, the number of serious, civic-minded people who could contribute to the betterment of the commonweal by running for public office is dropping even faster.

Many of the primary candidates running for office in this county invoke the most shopworn slogans and platitudes during their campaigns.

I've lost count of those who said they were "for education." Is anyone out there "against education"?

Then there are the candidates who say they want the state and county to be "more business friendly," while simultaneously promising to protect the environment.

Best of both worlds

In a questionnaire we sent to candidates this summer, one respondent, asked whether he would prefer to approve a tax rebate or increase education spending if the county were to realize a surplus, responded "both."

It's these types of promises and generalities that give us in the press the opportunity to ridicule those running for public office.

Part of the problem is that much of the public says it wants both -- low taxes and more spending, particularly on voters' favorite programs. Rather than confront the public about the absurdity of this position, many politicians support the fiction that both are possible.

Wrote Mencken, "They get into office by making all sorts of fantastic promises, few of which they try to keep, and then maintain themselves there by fooling the people further."

Politicians assume that voters don't want to confront hard realities.

To some degree, they are right. Most voters are unwilling to invest the time needed to study issues thoroughly. As a result, they are susceptible to empty sloganeering.

Things were not much different in Mencken's time: "The great majority of folk are far too stupid to see through a politician's tinsel," he wrote.

Mencken may be right about slick politicians pulling the wool over the voters' eyes, but a number of this county's problems will be all too obvious in the next four years.

Next year, the county executive and council will have to find money to increase school funding -- which the public apparently wants -- without raising taxes, which the public also wants.

Even if the economy continues to grow, the county's revenue picture is dismal. Property tax collections will remain flat because of a tax cap, and income tax collections are likely to increase moderately.

These revenues are not sufficient to avoid another bruising battle over education spending.

Should deflation occur, which a number of respectable economists predict, the county's property tax collections will have to shrink to satisfy the tax cap formula, tied as it is to the

inflation rate.

Financial disaster

That would be a fiscal disaster of the first order. The problem has solutions, but they involve more than platitudes about cutting waste, fraud and abuse.

In the coming weeks, candidates for local office will knock on doors, stand on street corners and solicit votes at neighborhood coffees, school football games, community bull roasts and forums.

Voters should ask the tough questions. Candidates who say they can increase spending on education, law enforcement, parks and senior citizen centers while holding the line on taxes are kidding the electorate.

Candidates who say they will see that police, emergency services and teachers will get generous raises next year should be closely questioned. How will these be financed? Which programs will have to be cut to find the money?

Those candidates who offer the most disturbing answers are perhaps the ones most worthy of being elected.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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