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WASHINGTON officials like to say it's good...


WASHINGTON officials like to say it's good to get out beyondthe beltway and talk to real people. If a meeting at the Pikesville Senior Center this week was any indication, some may want to reconsider.

Leon Panetta, the nation's budget director, served as a punching bag for a skeptical crowd that remains angry about the federal deficit. He was the featured guest at Rep. Ben Cardin's town hall meeting.

A vocal group in the mostly elderly crowd wanted the budget drastically trimmed -- one fellow suggested that by "stopping spending," the $300 billion deficit could be eliminated immediately. Yet they also protested cutbacks in Medicare and taxation of Social Security benefits.

Antipathy against federal spending ran deep. About a dozen raised their hands when asked if they opposed disaster aid for Midwest flood victims if it meant a bigger deficit.

Mr. Panetta explained the rationale for the Clinton budget, but some weren't persuaded. "I heard the same explanation when you were on the 'Larry King Show' fielding his softball questions," said a balding man, raising his voice and pointing his finger. "Why don't you go one-on-one with Rush Limbaugh?"

"I'll go one-on-one with anyone," Mr. Panetta responded.

Others said the proposed tax increases and spending caps would fail just like previous attempts to curb the deficit.

"If we get the $500 billion deficit reduction, will you admit we did the right thing?" Mr. Panetta asked.

After 45 minutes of verbal sparring, Mr. Panetta was still standing -- and still smiling. "There is nothing like getting back to the people," he said as he left the room.

Potomac officials these days have to have tough skins.

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MANY people have had a similar problem to that of the town of Bel Air, although usually in cold December rather than in sweltering July.

The Christmas tree is too tall, and can't be decorated.

Rather than cut a little here, whack off a little more there, and get a taller ladder, the Bel Air commissioners have decided to replace the towering tannenbaum that stands outside the town hall.

A smaller tree would be easier to decorate for the Yuletide. The town would need a cherry-picker to reach the top of the incumbent conifer -- equipment Bel Air doesn't own.

While there was opposition to cutting down a living, healthy tree, the town board majority decided that the mature pine had overgrown its welcome. For several years, the town has had trouble finding enough tree lights (and sufficiently safe electrical wiring) to fully decorate the impressive tree.

Havre de Grace lost its Christmas tree in Rochambeau Plaza earlier this year when a windstorm uprooted and toppled the fully-grown tree. O Tannenbaum, how unsturdy are thy branches!

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