Pork, Charters and Taxpayer Rights: Making Government Accountable

Given the drubbing the Conservatives received in the recent election in the U.K., this may seem a strange time to suggest that Annapolis adopt Toryesque policies. However, as the commentary on the back page makes plain, the Conservatives’ electoral defeat has not in any way invalidated their ideological program of the last 18 years. After all, it is not as though the new Labour administration intends to undo any of the Tories’ legacy – a legacy of scaled back government and enhanced citizen input.

By contrast, the 1997 legislative session in Annapolis demonstrated all the hallmarks of business as usual. True, a small cut in the state personal income-tax rate was approved, lowering the top rate from 5.00 percent to 4.75 percent over four years. Nonetheless, if you were under the impression that the prospect of $450.7 million in annual reduced revenues by the final year of phase-in might curb your representatives’ appetite for pork-barrel spending, think again. Witness a handful of choice picks culled from this year’s end-of-session Department of Fiscal Services reports.

Let’s start with the biggest and boondoggliest. This year’s state capital expenditure on the Baltimore Ravens’ new stadium will be $14,346,227.
The Baltimore Children’s Museum gets no less that $1 million.
Also in Baltimore City, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum gets $300,000.
In Charles County, the Mattawoman Creek Art Center secures $100,000.
In Harford County, Aberdeen’s Baseball Museum will receive $400,000.
In neighboring Bel Air, the town youth center gets $100,000 from state taxpayers.
Likewise, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore gets $500,000.
Over in Kent County, Chestertown has gotten hold of $100,000 for a boardwalk. It is unclear how the taxpayers of, say, Garrett County will benefit by this.
As a preliminary for Montgomery County’s tidy haul, the Bethesda Academy for the Performing Arts receives $75,000.
Similarly, the Gaithersburg Concert Pavilion takes in $100,000 of state funds.
Also in Montgomery, the Strathmore Hall Arts Center is to be subsidized by the state to the tune of $800,000.
Yet another performing-arts center rakes in some state cash, this time in Bowie, PG County, in the amount of $300,000.
Finally, believe it or not, state taxpayers will also foot a bill for $25,000 for a conference center on Smith Island, the tiny watermen’s community in the middle of the Chesapeake.

This not to say that these are not worthy projects. We do, however, to call into question the necessity of state-level funding for them. These schemes demonstrate no obvious statewide benefits. It would be more appropriate for funding to be provided by the local level of government. These facilities will be utilized almost exclusively by local residents, after all. Furthermore, none of these spending decisions has been put to the test of voter approval. They are tucked away in the appendices of obscure budget documents.

Citizens’ Rights

Rather than this centralization of what should be local-level spending, rather than business as usual, the state should consider creating a citizens’ rights charter, as instituted by the Conservatives in Britain in 1991. It guarantees U.K. residents certain basic levels of efficiency in government. It goes a considerable way to hog-tying the usual dispensers of local bacon.

Under the U.K. Citizens’ Charter, which applies to all public services and privatized utilities, certain principles are enshrined: the right to clear standards, monitored and published in full; the right to full and accurate information; a government commitment to extending consumer choice; a government commitment to rectifying mistakes in a timely manner; and, above all, value for the taxpayer’s money. Consider what has been achieved in the various issue area subcharters.

Under the Parents’ Charter, parents are guaranteed to receive from their child’s public school a least one written report per year on his or her progress, plus performance tables with comparative school data (like the annual Maryland School Performance Report). Relatedly, a national charter-school initiative has been started, allowing new schools to set up independently of local authorities and allowing existing public schools to escape school-board control by becoming charter schools monitored by their own boards of governors. Such schools are directly financed from London, with aid to local authorities reduced by an amount commensurate with the funding going to the ex-public, now chartered schools.

Under the Taxpayers’ Charter, the government has established Tax Enquiry Centres, which pledge to see people within 15 minutes of their walking in and which further pledge to deal with any tax repayment claims within 20 days.

Under the Jobseekers’ Charter, people going to a job-placement center are guaranteed to be seen on time if they have an appointment and within 10 minutes if they do not. Reciprocally, to continue receiving benefits, the unemployed must specify in writing exactly what steps they will take to help counselors find them work.

Charter “helplines” have been established. These are one-stop, all-purpose information lines for questions and complaints about the postal service, income-maintenance programs and business opportunities in continental Europe.

As part of its commitment to value, the central government’s Compulsory Competitive Tendering legislation forces local authorities to put public-service contracts out for competitive bidding. This has saved local taxpayers about

Posted in: News Series, State and Local Politics