A businesslike effort

NORMALLY, I bristle when someone says to run government like a business. If we did, we'd likely eliminate assistance to the needy elderly, for example. They're a drag on the bottom line.

But there are days -- like recently when a scientist friend and I attended a popular annual event to highlight restoration of the Patuxent, a Chesapeake Bay tributary.


It was the 18th year of the event, and the water's little cleaner than the year it began. "If this were a business, they would have fired us scientists and shut down 10 years ago for lack of product," my friend observed.

And though everyone in attendance was well aware of that, the many politicians who spoke did an admirable job of setting an affable and encouraging tone for the day.


I could easily see the crowds coming back for many more years -- but couldn't see as easily how the river's going to get better.

I had many of the same feelings Monday at Mount Vernon, where the governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia staged their annual confab on restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, an effort begun 22 years ago.

Politically they were effective -- got frequent applause, got by for yet another year without pledging anything difficult. But the bay remains almost as polluted and degraded as it was when the restoration was launched in 1983.

Indeed, the former owner of the joint where we met, a G. Washington, depended on Mount Vernon's commercial harvests from the bounteous Potomac to bolster farming income. Nowadays he'd be dependent on federal farm subsidy checks.

One wonders how Monday's event might have gone if the govs and their staffs and allies weren't public officials, but rather division chiefs of the fictitious CLEANBAY INC., a lean and mean corporation, under intense pressure from Wall Street to produce.

The conversation below between the governors and my imagined CLEANBAY's hard-driving CEO is made up, what might take place in big business.

"We have set ambitious goals," began Mark Warner, chief of the Virginia division.

The CEO cut him off: "Sounds like what you said at the 2004 meeting, Warner, and I quote: 'The idea of setting ambitious goals and letting them pass us by has to become a thing of the past.' Got anything new?"


Ed Rendell, chief, Pennsylvania division: "We're kidding ourselves if we think we can restore the bay without significant new financial commitment. Warner and I and Ehrlich from the Maryland division will be lobbying Congress soon, asking for billions."

"Warner said that last year too, and I quote: 'We need a large, permanent federal funding source.' I'm supposed to take that to the stock analysts? They want to know when the water's going to get cleaner. But it's nice to see you attending for a change, Rendell."

"ICE, boss, ICE is the answer," chimed in Maryland state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, there in the absence of Maryland division head Bob Ehrlich.


"Stands for incentives, cooperation and education," Stoltzfus said. "Those are what I consider the essential elements of a successful bay restoration."

"Pretty tepid stuff, Stoltzfus," the CEO snapped. "Did you hear the testimony from state environmental officials at Congressman Wayne Gilchrest's hearing on bay restoration a few weeks ago?


"They said all we need is 'unprecedented' reductions in farm pollution, 'unprecedented' sewage treatment cleanup, 'unprecedented' pollution reductions from septic tanks, from storm water runoff ... on and on.

"You gonna do that with ICE? Think about ICE TEA -- last three initials stand for Taxes, Enforcement and Accountability."

"We are going to triple the number of farms under regulation in Pennsylvania," Rendell piped up.

"Baby steps, Rendell, chicken feed. In Lancaster County alone you've got more than 5,900 farms, only a couple hundred of them under regulation. You expect tripling that to give shareholders the bay we're selling?"

Warner: "We do still have enormous, enormous work to be done."

"Well, duuuhhh. Why can't the Virginia division even take the first step, like Ehrlich at Maryland? He taxed sewer users, called it a 'fee,' and raised a billion dollars.


"Bottom line, gentlemen, I have heard few specifics from you today about how and when you will restore this bay, how you will raise money from your own citizens, or enforce existing clean water laws, or use your regulatory authority. Please don't come back next year with such pablum."

Then the CEO looked at the crowd of environmental professionals and bay supporters who had assembled at Mount Vernon and said:

"You're my accounting division, my auditors. You keep us honest. Why the hell have you been applauding?"