Although 1982 will be a year when the economy is on most people's minds, it promises to be a very exciting and fast-paced one in the region's political arena. In addition to the mayoral race in the District of Columbia and the races in the House of Representatives, a wide range of local, state and national political offices will be contested, including the seats held by Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes from Maryland and Harry F. Byrd from Virginia, seven seats on the D.C. Council, all elected officials in Maryland, including the governor and county executives in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and seats in the Virginia General Assembly.
Now, more than ever, it is imperative that the business community be politically active, especially in the year ahead. I cannot think of a more critical time for our economy, nor a time in which business has had more at stake. Just as critical is the realization that every corporate citizen has not only the right, but the obligation to express a point of view in the political arena. No one can do it for another. As I look ahead, I hope the business community will manifest its commitment to help the free enterprise system, on an individual basis and through locally oriented political action committees similar to the Commerce and Industry Political Action Committees of The Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The economy of this region is so tightly interwoven that organizations like the board of trade, with a regional point of view, will seriously consider those candidates who understand regional needs. Transportation, for example, is just one of those needs. Adequate financing for our Metro system, operable roads and bridges, as well as adequate facilities at airports, affect us all and must be addressed by local candidates.
Another factor for business and the candidates to examine is how business costs here compare with other regions. What wage differentials are imposed by local jurisdictions? What thoughts do candidates have for creating and maintaining jobs in our region? How serious are local governments about helping economic development? Have adequate water supply and sewerage treatment capacity been planned to meet the needs of our community?
These regional issues, in addition to jurisdictional needs, should be thoroughly addressed by those candidates who hope to hold office within Greater Washington. Clearly, as we look at the elections ahead, all citizens of the region should examine closely candidates' commitments to helping our regional economy prosper.
We hear much about the involvement of special interest groups in the political arena, all of which realize the importance of stating their case, getting their story told and ultimately electing their candidates. So it must be with the business community, and I cannot stress too strongly that now more than ever, the business community must identify and articulate its needs and support its candidates. If it doesn't, the political ineffectiveness that results will be its responsibility.
The writer is president-elect of The Greater Washington Board of Trade. TOPIC A
Walter A. Scheiber: In the New Year, Government Needs Good Business . . .
This has been the year in which many of Washington's most confirmed skeptics finally concluded that their city--and region--was not, as legend has it, recession-proof. Next year may well convince many others.
No year-end review or look ahead at metropolitan Washington can be made without assigning top priority to the state of the economy. That subject dominated both public and private discussions and decisions in 1981, and this can be expected to remain the case through most, if not all, of 1982.
The question, of course, is what effect these economic developments in the region, the nation and even the world will have on life in our metropolitan area in 1982. Crystal balls are popular items at this time of the year, but a more reliable source for determining the outlook for 1982 is to consider what we know to be happening at the close of 1981.
We know, for example, that administration cutbacks begun at the start of this year are beginning to have an impact on both government and private business. The region may lose $216 million in retailing services, transportation and housing and another $115 million in federal assistance. We know from census data at the Council of Governments that the Washington area experienced its slowest rate of growth in this century in the 10 years from 1970 to 1980. With the changes in government policy and a worsening economy, that growth could be slowed to an even lower rate before the picture begins to brighten.
We know some things about 1982 already. The regional unemployment rate has risen 21 percent from 1980 to stand at 5.1 percent, but it is estimated to be substantially higher among certain segments of the population, particularly black youths. Area housing starts are down dramatically, and so are sales. The vacancy rate for industrial and office space, although lower than in other metropolitan areas, is three times higher than last year.
We know already that 1982 will be a lean year for the area's cities and counties, caught in the squeeze between citizen resistance to higher taxes, less federal assistance and public pressure to maintain programs and services. In striving for a balance, some have curtailed programs, closed facilities and laid off employees in 1981. As they enter 1982, local elected officials and administrators see little or no change.
And a factor in almost every major local government's financial decision- making is the dilemma of how to complete the $8 billion Metro system--a question still without clear-cut long- range solutions as 1981 comes to a close.
Administration economists suggest there will be no marked change in the nation's economy until the third quarter of 1982. Other observers are even more pessimistic, pointing out that many of the impacts of the administration's cutbacks in programs and jobs will not be fully felt for several more months.
With officials telling us both that the economy will not improve until at least the middle of the year and that more federal layoffs can be expected, the outlook for 1982 seems to be for more of the same. Ironically, that outlook may also be better than would have been the case if these developments had occurred in earlier years.
COG's analysts found in 1981 that the economic structure of the region had diversified in recent years, away from that of a "federal town" to an economy with a far stronger private sector than before. The result is almost a paradox: although less "recession- proof" because the federal government is not as dominant as before, the region is likely to be able to withstand the budget cuts better because of the greater influence of the private sector.
This relatively recent trend has helped to keep the state of our own economy healthier than that of other urban regions. The unemployment rate, 5.1 percent here, is 8.4 nationally. Although we lost approximately 13,600 federal, state and local jobs in 1981, we gained 30,600 jobs in the private sector, again reflecting the growing influence of private business in this metropolitan area.
This increasing diversification may be our biggest reason for hope as the region tries to ride out the economic jolts being felt by the nation, the region, our city and county governments and by our citizens themselves on the eve of 1982.