Big plans without big funds

February 06, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT YOU HEAR from our elected leaders often is not what you actually get. Politicians are increasingly stretching the bounds of credibility to impress constituents.

President Clinton did it in the State of the Union address. Gov. Parris N. Glendening did it in his State of the State speech. Republican presidential frontrunner George W. Bush has done it on the campaign trail; so has Democratic candidate Bill Bradley.

They're not the only ones. But they exemplify a trend in politics: Making broad, sweeping statements that aren't backed up by cold, hard numbers.

Or politicians manipulate the numbers to their advantage, even if it means fooling the public.

Take Governor Glendening's announcement of a $50 million plan to end lead-paint poisoning in low-income rental homes. That $50 million could be a mirage.

First, read the fine print -- the $50 million will be spread over three years, making is a $16.65 million annual effort. Second, $5.6 million of that sum is money already being spent on the problem. So this is really an addition of only $11 million in the next budget.

Even then, that amount includes $6 million in federal funds the city already gets but spends on other activities. That's not an infusion of new money for the city. Nor are the federal dollars guaranteed for three years. If conservative George W. Bush is president a year from now, that lead-paint money from Washington could vanish. Thus, a program heralded as a $50 million crusade is, in reality, far less than what it seems.

Why did the governor pick that wishful $50 million figure? Probably because it had a nice ring to it.

He may have taken his cue from Washington, where the "in" thing is to talk about tax cuts and health plans and debt reduction and surpluses in multi-year terms:

The president seeks to wipe out $3.2 trillion of public debt over 13 years.

Republicans pushed last year for a $900 billion tax cut, spread over 10 years.

Governor Bush has proposed a $483 billion, five-year tax cut that actually would cost the U.S. Treasury $1.7 trillion in revenue as the full impact of his reductions are felt over 10 years.

Mr. Bradley touts a $65 billion-a-year health-insurance plan that he says will cost $650 billion over 10 years. But he ignores inflation and underestimates the price for insuring the uninsured. An academic analysis puts the cost at $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Why do politicians stretch the truth so far? To gain public support they manipulate numbers.

Governor Glendening, for instance, gushes about the taxes he has cut over the past five years, saving taxpayers $2.4 billion.

But this includes a cut in unemployment insurance rates that doesn't affect ordinary citizens. It doesn't include the tobacco tax

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cf01 he imposed last year, either.

And it's a cumulative total. It's the same as saying that a fellow being paid $50,000 a year is really a $250,000 wage-earner (over a five-year period, of course).

Look at the state's settlement with tobacco companies. Even though the fees flowing to the state will continue indefinitely, it's called a $4.2 billion windfall -- over 25 years. That sounds so much more impressive than the annual average payout of $168 million.

To compound the confusion, Mr. Glendening set out to dictate how this money will be spent for the next 10 years -- even though he leaves office in three years.

That lets him claim he's giving away $1 billion for anti-smoking causes. In truth, it's more like $100 million a year. Even that could change after he leaves office.

The governor's 10-year spending plan for the tobacco money could be revised by a future chief executive governor or legislature, especially in a recession.

And if tobacco use drops sharply, the state's fee drops, too. We may never see that $4.2 billion windfall politicians crow about.

Similarly, the president's debt-elimination plan predicts surpluses so far into the future that the numbers are worthless.

Right now, Congress and the president are engaged in wild projections of what the federal surplus will be in 10 years -- as if any economist could responsibly forecast 10 years ahead. We'd be wise to ignore any politician who talks about multiyear fiscal plans so cavalierly.

There's an underlying premise that citizens are so dense and easily manipulated that politicians can float just about any big-number, multi-year spending or tax plan -- and get away with it.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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