The near-consensus view from the men and women running to become Baltimore's next mayor is that the city should double the funding for after-school programs, create 1,000 more summer jobs for youths and renovate all city schools.
The obvious question is this: Why not 10,000 summer jobs? Why not quadruple funding for schools? Why not restore blighted neighborhoods, too?
All those things are about as likely to happen, given the reality of city finances, as the promises made at Thursday's candidates forum in East Baltimore. Perhaps no one thought to mention that Baltimore is still reeling from unemployment and a dreadful economy and that increased government spending — no matter how well intentioned — is no longer a viable option.
Please, don't misunderstand. These are all worthy causes. The BUILD agenda that all of the assembled mayoral candidates at the forum endorsed (with the exception of Joseph T. "Jody" Landers) is laudable and, as many in the audience noted, the needs of the city's youth ought to come first. Such measures would do wonders to reduce crime, lift up neighborhoods and boost the city's economy.
But the reality is, the city is facing deficits, not surpluses. The latest economic forecasts are dreadful. The nation's second-quarter job growth fell to a scant 1 percent annual rate, according to the latest Commerce Department statistics released Friday. Consumer aren't spending and jobs aren't being created.
In Annapolis, a possible $1 billion budget deficit looms for the next fiscal year, and some lawmakers are still talking about reducing state payments to teacher retirement. That would be a major hit to local budgets, including Baltimore's.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's campaign issued a news release after the forum attempting to claim the fiscal high ground because she, alone among the major contenders, has not proposed a plan to drastically cut property tax rates. But she should know better than any that even without cutting taxes, Baltimore isn't close to having the money to do what she promised without major cuts elsewhere. After all, she just cut after-school programs and summer jobs and raised taxes to help make up a $65 million budget shortfall.
Tough talk about the city's budget isn't what people want to hear. Politicians long ago learned that it's easier to promise a chicken in every pot than face the reality of a poultry and cookware shortage. It's human nature to prefer good news to bad.
Nor would we suggest that the city shouldn't change some of its budget priorities. It's merely that if someone is going to promise to spend more money, he or she ought to be required to explain how any proposed expansion in taxpayer-funded city services will be financed. What taxes will be increased and/or what current spending will be cut?
It's frustrating that Baltimore had to cut summer jobs. That's a program that helps reduce crime and offers young people a vital opportunity to be productive members of society. It was the last program to fall under the budget ax this year, and perhaps there are legitimate savings to be found elsewhere that might rescue the program in 2012.
But cutting funds to the Inner Harbor, a major source of employment for young people in this city, would seem a pretty irresponsible way to generate jobs. The bathrooms at the harbor may seem gleaming compared to those in some city schools, as one BUILD coalition leader complained, but the moment tourists no longer choose to visit downtown Baltimore is the day the city government will be forced to make even steeper cuts to its budget. Besides, keeping those Inner Harbor bathrooms clean (and the stores staffed and burgers flipped) is just the kind of job Baltimore's youth could fill.
Hard times aren't going away. Government forecasts predict at least two more years of high unemployment. City voters need more from their candidates than big promises. They deserve to hear the unvarnished truth.