Friday, April 16, 2010

Leaders Facing Fiscal Challenges

Now is not an easy time to govern. Revenues are down--way down--and officials at the state and county level can only offer an unpalatable menu of reduced spending and higher taxes. Neither is appealing to an electorate and one suspects that sounds of distress arising from the land will only increase as the General Assembly comes home to campaign and the County Council wrestles with the budget.

In the ongoing budget debates that will continue long beyond the primary or the general elections, it's easy to demand funding for cherished programs or rail against tax increases. It's a lot harder to say what tax you'd raise or other program you'd cut to pay for them. Amid the cacophony, several leaders at different levels of government have impressed me with their willingness to grapple with tough issues. I thought I'd highlight a couple of them here:

(1) Aaron Kaufmann, Vice Chairman of the Montgomery County Commission on People with Disabilities, could just highlight the many challenges faced by disabled people as part of his fight to secure more funding for disabled people. They're certainly a compelling group even in tough times and Aaron is a strong advocate.

Instead, Aaron has not just asked for funding but taken the far tougher road of not just advocating for more funding but coming up with a specific funding mechanism: a five-cent increase on the alcohol tax. Would that every person advocating for more spending or lower taxes be so forthright.

(2) County Councilmember Marc Elrich would have pleasanter meetings, and probably an easier reelection bid, if he would agree to advocate for more spending on worthy causes when speaking with constituents. Instead, the liberal councilmember has taken a page from Nancy Reagan (!) by just saying no. As the Gazette reports:

Elrich has met with many people who want money restored in the county's fiscal 2011 budget for worthy projects and services, and he has said the same thing to all of them: "No."

"I've told everyone I'm not putting a dime back in the budget," he said.

The council learned Tuesday that County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) will revise his budget proposal to include an additional $168 million in cuts.

Elrich said it is understood that no "pet projects" will be pushed through this year. "I can't think about how I add that without imagining where I'll subtract it from," he said.
No doubt there are many other examples of fiscal backbone and public officials making hard choices. Feel free to mention your favorite examples in the comments. It would improve our public discourse in these fiscally tough times if not just public officials and candidates but constituents as well would follow the challenge outlined by Aaron and Marc and tell us how you'd pay for any increased spending or cut in taxes.

The recent fracas over teacher pensions in the General Assembly shows how valuable these debates can be and the difficulties faced by legislators who not only have to cope with demands by constituents who have real needs but other legislators who likely have a different set of preferences. You may hate Sen. Rich Madaleno's work on this issue in the past session but budgeting is making choices and he was willing to engage in the debate and make tough choices as part of his effort to fight off worse options for the County.

It's fine to argue against these choices as many have, and certainly no one has the monopoly on wisdom, but to be credible in my book you have to lay out real options and spell them out in meaningful detail. You favor higher taxes? Then tell us how much the taxes would go up and on whom to fund your program. You favor lower taxes? Then tell us which programs you'd eliminate. (And pointing to old saws like "waste, fraud, and abuse" or talking in vague terms about budget reforms doesn't cut it.)

When sizing up candidates this year, look not just at their priorities but at their ability to deal responsibly and honestly with the public. If someone is telling you something that sounds too easy in these tough times, check your wallet.

And yep, it applies to me too. I'm the Town Treasurer and have to outline the budget proposed by the Council at the Town of Chevy Chase's Annual Meeting on May 4th at the Lawton Center.