Where Has All the Vision Gone in Maryland?
Pity the poor Maryland state or local elected officials facing reelection in 2010. Their response to the fiscal crisis has been reactive and uninspired, and voters are getting angrier by the day. Montgomery County voters recently passed the Ficker amendment, a tax cap measure, as their first salvo.
No one in office today has ever seen anything like the current crisis. The economy is collapsing, tax revenue is in free fall, services must be slashed, job losses are accelerating, and home foreclosures are skyrocketing, and yet our state and local elected officials act as if they've been there and done that. Based on their response so far, we are in a run-of-the-mill recession with recovery just around the corner. So they do what they've always done: Raise taxes here, cut around the edges there, raid reserves everywhere, repeat every few months and pray that they get through their next election. No thought is given to rethinking, just going through the familiar drills.
Their one concession to how different these times are is to climb aboard the federal bailout bandwagon and cry "Feds to the rescue, Feds to the rescue!" Difficult decisions don't have to be made in Annapolis because the federal stimulus will plug all the holes in the budget that gambling revenue won't. River Road is washed away by a broken water main, and a Montgomery County Council member blames the federal government because the feds haven't given the county money for WSSC infrastructure maintenance. Far too much faith is being placed in the Obama stimulus package as the solution to every problem, rather than the stopgap measure that it is.
The federal stimulus does give our state and local elected officials more time to adjust to the economic changes, but after the stimulus is gone a very slowly recovering economy will still be there. Fundamental changes must be made at the state and local level to respond to the worst economy since the Great Depression, and the public must be involved in the decisions that are made. First, though, the public has to be informed, honestly and courageously.
Trust and confidence in government need to be restored, and it has to start with an honest accounting about the challenges we face along with a vision of where we want to go. It's time to be truthful to the public and acknowledge that government's capabilities must be reshaped for some time to come. Can state and local elected officials get back to basics by adopting zero-based budgeting and conducting a healthy review of government's core missions and competencies? Can they decide a program is no longer affordable and then cut it entirely out of the budget? Can they get ahead of the revenue forecasts and stop changing budgets every few months? Can they redesign services to face a new economic reality?
For their reelection's sake, they better hope they can, because if they can't, the voters will replace them with others who will.
-- Doug Duncan
The writer is former county executive of Montgomery County.