Baltimore's Regional Council of Governments has been rudderless for well over a year. This speaks volumes about regionalism in Maryland -- none of it good.
For all the pacts, studies and initiatives on this subject, cooperation is mostly smoke and mirrors. Parochialism, politics and rivalries are partly to blame. But the biggest culprit is the shortsightedness of local elected leaders. Few would admit to it, but many see regionalism as nothing more than political shorthand for bailing out Baltimore City.
This narrow view is a luxury local executives can ill afford. With fiscal strain threatening basic services, there's a compelling economic case to be made for regional cooperation. Joint purchasing agreements could save millions. Shared law enforcement and fire-fighting services could lead to better protection at a lower cost.
State budget cutbacks open up new vistas for regional togetherness. Growth management, commercial revitalization, housing assistance, even economic development, might be better and more cheaply disseminated by a regional body controlled by representatives of local jurisdictions. As Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein pointed out in last week's Perspective section, "The high cost of government has brought us to a turning point in the way we think of the role of government." He advocates "regional consortiums providing major government services" as a sensible way to run programs more efficiently at a lower cost.
The fiscal agony of the past year demonstrates the growing inability of the state and localities to underwrite the mammoth array of services taxpayers have come to expect. Yet no one -- taxpayers or legislators -- wants higher taxes.
In an age of beltways, fax machines and changing commuter patterns, political boundaries become increasingly meaningless. People work in one jurisdiction, live in another and send their children to school somewhere else. In order to truly serve constituents, politicians must concern themselves with more than what's going on in their own backyard. The region's leaders are scrambling to find solutions to worsening financial pressures. Regionalism won't make those problems go away. But a serious commitment to interjurisdictional cooperation would be a step toward lightening the load.