We've seen another step in the "New Barrynomics" with the mayor's pending plan to transfer $12 million in street lighting costs to District residents and businesses. The basic strategy behind Reaganomics was a shift of federal resources and responsibilities to state and local governments. Now the local governments are in a fiscal bind and they are shifting responsibilities to residents.
When John E. Jacobs of the National Urban League was asked to assess "New Federalism," President Reagan's return to states' rights, he put it bluntly: "We have to label the New Federalism for what it is--a prescription for inflicting further misery on the poor . . . ."
The "New Barrynomics" seems to be a similar prescription for inflicting further tribulation on those District residents who are least able to pay.
The proposal to transfer street lighting costs to city residents and firms would put the biggest burdens upon businesses, and the added cost to an individual's light bill would probably be around a dollar or less a month. That cost may seem miniscule to some, but to the poor, it is just another burden they will find hard to bear. And feelings are running high against it.
People are already suffering from many hardships as it is," observed Louis Raymond Perkins, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "They are trying to meet everyday living expenses, struggling with unemployment, and I'm strongly against adding this extra burden for something they already pay taxes for."
The city's proposal to raise fines for traffic violations stirs Perkins' ire as well. "It just seems to me that the city is strangling people and I can't understand it. This is what is causing the exodus of people from the city. On the one hand we talk about helping people, at the same time we're driving them more and more against the wall."
The contrast between the desperation he sees as he walks around the inner city and the seeming insensitivity of city officials to their plight makes Perkins see red.
"I don't ride around in an air-conditioned limousine," he said. "I walk, and I listen to people's problems. Sometimes we forget where we came from," he observed, in a sharp reference to the community activism that launched Mayor Marion Barry's political career.
Other residents say they'd rather see an open increase in taxes than a sneaky raise like this gimmick. In the Kalorama area, ANC commissioner Elaine Dym said more taxes are preferable, "if the city is so badly strapped. People expect the government to provide lighting along with fire and police. It is a matter of principle."
A professional woman who lives in LeDroit Park finds the city's plan "absurd," adding: "We've got to get something besides garbage collection and street maintenance from the city. As it is, if street or alley lights go out, we end up waiting a long time for the city to fix them. When my alley light went out, it took several phone calls, a letter and a month before the city came and fixed it."
The mayor cites the need to the city budget as the explanation for trying to make utility-users pay the city's street-lighting costs. It is true that part of the city's budget problems lie beyond his control. With the federal government cutting funds for many programs, for example, some local concessions were to be expected, but placing such essentials as street lighting on the backs of already-strapped taxpayers puts the public interest too far down on the list of priorities.
This proposal is just one more user fee, and on the level of a middle-class resident paying another $12 or $15 a year, the pain is symbolic. But Washington has many faces of poverty, and to them it looks like the city wants to slough off one more function. Things won't be any better next year, so what comes next? Will we have to buy police cars and pay for trash collection?
The people in the city elected people they felt cared about them and had sensitivity, but watching the way things are going, it is easy to have doubts.