Politics & Other Mistakes: Chronichitis
I’m not a doctor, but I do occasionally watch reruns of “House,” so I feel qualified to offer this diagnosis of the persistent medical problems afflicting the state’s population.
Many of you are suffering from a brain condition called ignorance. Others are infected with a disease called stupidity of the head.
There’s no cure for either malady, although symptoms may be eased by infusions of the drug of knowledge. Side effects include nausea, night sweats, fingernail-biting and delusions of running for political office. Call your doctor immediately if you experience an election lasting more than four hours.
According to health experts, cases of dopiness increase whenever there’s a state budget crises, because much of the population carries a germ of an idea for a quick fix of the fiscal mess. During times of prosperity, this bug is dormant, but whenever it hears the terms “shortfall,” “tapping reserve accounts” or “state Treasurer David Lemoine says things will be fine,” it starts attacking brain cells.
Once this fever hits the body politic, the patient experiences uncontrollable urges to make ridiculous statements about how to bring state spending under control. Here are a few of the boneheaded budget-balancing plans associated with this dreadful illness.
Stupid Idea Number 1: We could save a lot of money if we reduced the size of the Legislature.
Why it won’t work: Getting rid of a third of the members of the state House would save about half-a-million bucks a year in salaries and maybe another half-million or so in reductions in benefits and staff. In return, residents of rural Maine would find themselves in legislative districts larger than several member nations of the European Union. State Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake would represent a chunk of Maine bigger than the entire 1st Congressional District.
Stupid Idea Number 2: We could balance the budget if we cut spending at every state agency by 10 percent.
Why it won’t work: The current budget is about $3 billion a year. A 10 percent cut comes to $300 million. The projected shortfall in the next budget is $425 million a year.
Stupid Idea Number 3: OK, you jerk, let’s make it a bigger across-the-board cut.
Why that won’t work, either: Well, actually, it might, if you don’t mind crippling small agencies that are operating reasonably efficiently – the state crime lab, for example – while having little impact on large bureaucracies – the Department of Health and Human Services – which are squandering tax dollars like Wall Street bankers on pre-recession benders. Across-the-board cuts are just an excuse for avoiding the unpleasant chore of setting priorities.
Stupid Idea Number 4: Freeze hiring. Let attrition produce big savings.
Why this hasn’t worked: Like the previous dumb plan, this one fails to target the places where state government is top-heavy – such as management at the departments of health and human services, education, transportation and economic development. Since Gov. John Baldacci imposed a freeze several months ago, it’s resulted in shortages of frontline workers, but no significant loss of high-salaried bureaucrats.
Stupid Idea Number 5: Merge state departments to cut duplication.
Why that hasn’t worked: The governor loves this one, too, which ought to tell you all you need to know. Bigger departments don’t require fewer administrators. They require more. Just look at the money we saved combining the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Human Services. It almost covers Baldacci’s coffee breaks.
Stupid Idea Number 6: Create a blue-ribbon commission like the one Jim Longley headed in the 1970s to find waste in state government.
Why this didn’t work: Longley’s commission generated enough publicity to get him elected governor, but it wasn’t nearly as successful at generating savings. The budget reductions came to less than $10 million. Longley made some additional cuts once he got in office by delaying spending on highway and building maintenance, which had to be made up later at a higher cost.
Stupid Idea Number 7: Run government like a business.
Why this doesn’t work: Government isn’t a business. If it were, all roads would charge tolls, all schools would require tuition payments (at more than double what your current tax bill for education is), a visit to Baxter State Park would cost more than a weekend at Funtown/Splashtown USA, and letting your homeowner’s insurance lapse would mean that a 911 call about the flames shooting out of your roof would be answered with silence.
Real budget cutting takes more than slogans and buzz words. It requires careful probing to find waste, inefficiency, obsolescence and political protectorates. It’s surgery with a sharp scalpel, not a chain saw.
If, like most people, you think that’s too much of a pain, turn up the anesthetic and let somebody qualified do the cutting.
Paging Dr. House.
Getting that angry can’t be good for your blood pressure. Relieve the stress by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.