LAST WEEK'S intense gathering of fiscal surgeons on Capitol Hill to operate on the federal budget may not have engrossed the average taxpayer around town -- but in due course the effects of federal austerity are going to hit home with a vengeance. That is the grim warning running through a significant analysis just made by Philip M. Dearborn of the Greater Washington Research Center, as outlined in excerpts on the opposite page today. In this first installment of a "State of the Region Report," the cold financial facts point up the seriousness of the situation not only in the District, but throughout the metropolitan area.
There is nothing complicated about the fundamental premise of the report: money raised by the region's local governments is not keeping pace with spending. The choice is not between cutting spending and increasing taxes, either, for as Mr. Dearborn states, both steps have to be taken. While this is a plight common to most large urban regions around the country, the impact of decreased federal aid on the governments of this region is unusually great -- with the District being "the big loser."
Even raising taxes, an increasingly tough political business these days, will not maintain current levels of government services. The degree to which people are willing to accept such reductions will be severely tested, and if the resulting political discomfort index rises dramatically, tensions between the local governments will rise as well. There are signs of it already -- in Northern Virginia, for example, where Fairfax County is unhappy about the way money will be raised and divided up under the tax increases just enacted to help finance Metro. Then there is Metro itself; a sharp philosophical difference over fare policies exists between the District and the suburbs.
If there is any comfort in this bleak financial outlook, it is that the governments of this region have a long and successful history of regional cooperation that has gone well beyong pleasant talk and good-government generalities. Through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, many initially bitter regional disputes -- the most recent over sewers -- have ended in sophisticated, workable and economical agreements. Like the spending and tax figures of the future, the number of these regional tests is likely to grow at a much faster rate in the coming years.