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Our chickens come home to roost

Listening to Ned Regan talk about the feedback he has gotten about Erie County's fiscal crisis brings to mind the chicken and the egg.

And since we're talking about Erie County politicians, you can take the first part literally.

But as the County Legislature heads into tomorrow's meeting still lacking the votes -- and the guts -- to raise enough revenue to balance the books, it's worth pondering what Regan hasn't heard in his listening tour across the county.

When the head of the county control board has met with various groups to get feedback about the fiscal mess, he has heard "an almost universal disappointment with the governments and the people running the show, whoever they may be."

He calls it "a kind of active disappointment. . . . There's no apathy."

"Maybe they don't show up at the polls, but they're not apathetic," said the former county executive and state comptroller.

But while they're more than happy to voice their frustration with government, it does raise a parallel question.

Has anyone stood up and said, "It's my fault for electing leaders who promised something for nothing -- massive tax cuts and services, too. As a responsible voter who studies the issues, I should have known that was too good to be true"?

"No, no, no. I have not heard that," Regan said.

OK, let's be forward-looking. Has anybody stood up and said, "I use this government service, and I'm willing to see it cut; I pay this fee, and I'm willing to have it raised because that's the responsible thing to do"?

He hasn't heard that one, either.

"No one is standing up and volunteering to be hurt," Regan said on the eve of the Legislature's pivotal meeting.

Is it any wonder, then, that squeamish suburban lawmakers can't bring themselves to restore revenues after years of disastrous tax cuts, and would rather drop the matter in the laps of unelected overseers?

If the Legislature can't pass a recovery plan with enough new revenue tomorrow, there's every likelihood Regan's oversight panel will morph into a "hard" control board that virtually takes control of county government.

But blaming the county executive and legislators will be pinpointing only half the reason. If their "bosses" -- the voters -- refuse to see the big picture, why should they?

A tough control board is what happens when the electorate and the elected conspire in mutual delusion about the realities of governing.

And that brings us back to the chicken-and-egg question of which comes first: responsible voters or responsible politicians?

It also makes Erie County a case study in what happens when you have neither.

Of course, Regan is more generous than I am in assessing "we, the people." He thinks a good-faith effort by county officials to economize within government might make voters more willing to face the hard choice of raising taxes.

I'm not so sure.

But even if he's right, the problem is that the county needs money now; there's no way to economize your way out of next year's $140 million hole.

Which brings to mind another line about chickens: They always come home to roost.

You can call it apathy. Or, if that offends your sensibilities, you can call it strategic disengagement.

Whatever the term, the low turnout on primary day, the whining about increases in taxes and fees, and the "cut their service, not mine" attitude reinforce another truism: On the whole, people get the government they deserve.

That's why a hard control board for Erie County seems inevitable.


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