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Chicago shows perils of infrastructure leases

When money is tight and there's a lack of public will to raise taxes or sacrifice services, it can be awfully tempting for public officials to raise some quick cash by signing a sweetheart long-term lease deal for a toll facility or other revenue-raising public asset.

But as the case of the Chicago parking meters shows, these deals are fraught with peril for generations to come. Current elected officials will always be tempted to front-load the benefits to avoid unpopular tax increases or spending cuts on their watch while short-changing the future. There'a a posterity-be-damned political ethos prevailing that needs a legal counterweight before Maryland begins falling into similar traps.

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In Chicago, the  City Council just approved Mayor Richard M. Daley's plan to raid the reserve fund created through a 75-year lease deal for the future revenue of the city's parking meter's to balance one year's tough  budget. In effect, the city pocketed money that was intended to make up for lost parking revenue for the next three generations.

The mechanism I propose to prevent such shenanigans would be the establishment of a Counsel for Future Generations, modeled on the People's Counsel that defends the interests of residential ratepayers in utility cases. That lawyer should be charged with representing the rights of the people at the back end of these long-term lease deals, with authority to challenge any lease deal or raid on a  reserve fund that is stacked in favor of today's taxpayers  at the expense of tomorrow's. And judges should be given the responsibilty of assuring that today's public officials don't enter into deals that cheat the future.

If these protections are put in place by anything less than a state constitutional amendement, it will be all to easy to abrogate them when in the middle of one of the state's periodic budget  "crises." So why not put a measure on the ballot for the 2010 election providing safeguards for any public obligation lasting longer than 25 years? Your great-grandkids would thank you.

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