Generally speaking, the trimmed-down fiscal year 1996 budget for Anne Arundel County reflects the County Council's sincere efforts to fulfill the voters' mandate for a smaller, less expensive government. But in its enthusiasm to cut, cut, cut, the council chopped an agency that should have been left alone: the Ethics Commission, the panel that keeps an eye out for public leaders engaging in prohibited activities or exerting improper influence.
The council slashed the commission by $37,000 -- a 40 percent cut from what County Executive John G. Gary had recommended and 38 1/2 percent less than the current budget. Mr. Gary had wanted the two part-time commission staffers, who currently work 30 hours a week, to spend 32 hours a week on ethics issues. The council cut them back to 24 hours a week and reduced their pay.
What was the point? No one can argue that there hasn't been enough work to keep two part-time employees busy.
Since the commission was formed just a year ago, it has cracked down on unregistered lobbyists; issued a number of informal decisions and a formal ruling that, as insiders, county tax sales workers should not be able to bid on properties offered for sale; and started two investigations. Nor do we seriously believe that council members don't care about ethics and fear what this watchdog group might find out about them.
The council got carried away, plain and simple. In its first budget session, this conservative, majority-Republican group was determined to forge a reputation as a fearless trimmer of government fat. It cut the ethics commission for the same reason people climb Mount Everest -- because it was there. The savings to the taxpayer amount to a pittance. And while the council cut other items such as raises and new jobs for Mr. Gary's aides, which were even more minuscule, those reductions reflected citizens' distaste for perks and big bureaucracy. In contrast, taxpayers are clamoring for more, not less, attention to ethics. People are cynical enough about government; they aren't balking at efforts to keep it honorable.
It's too late to do anything about the fiscal 1996 ethics budget. But the council must learn that cutting merely for the sake of cutting can be as bad as spending for the sake of spending.