Politics & Other Mistakes: Finding balance
Balancing the state budget is easy.
If by “easy,” you mean “ridiculously difficult.”
All it takes is a genius-level grasp of finances, the political acumen of Abraham Lincoln and negotiating skills not seen since 1919, when Jacob Rupert of the New York Yankees convinced Harry Frazee of the Boston Red Sox to sell him Babe Ruth for less than the alleged off-the-books income of a Kennebunk Zumba instructor.
Other than that, any idiot can make projected state revenues match expected state expenditures so everything comes out even – if by “any idiot,” you mean “any idiot except the idiots who are actually responsible for doing so.”
For the two fiscal years beginning on July 1, 2013, Maine government is facing an estimated shortfall of $883 million. Between now and the end of the current budget year on June 30, the state has to deal with an actual deficit that currently stands at $137 million, but could go lots higher. When all the errors, miscalculations and bull-headed stupidity that went into this spending plan are accounted for, the red ink will almost certainly total over $150 million and could be as much as $200 million.
In 1919 dollars, that’s enough to stock the rosters of every Major League team with Babe Ruths, and there’d be enough left over for all the beer they’d drink.
Fortunately for the incompetent boobs charged with balancing the budget, there are plenty of even less qualified bozos willing to give them advice. Of course, advice from bozos is usually bad advice, but bad might be a slight improvement.
Let’s start with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank that’s in charge of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s brain. Which is a heavy responsibility, because LePage’s noggin is easily overloaded when confronted with nasty facts, while being soothed by outrageous statements based on wishful thinking.
To keep the LePage neurons comfortable, the center’s staff recently authored the 2012 edition of the “Maine Piglet Book,” a pamphlet that claims to expose “new government boondoggles and … pork barrel spending that takes waste and fraud to a whole new level.”
That ought to make budget balancing a cinch. Eliminate all the fat exposed by the center, and there’ll be so much money left over, we could buy every Maine citizen who wants them season tickets to the Red Sox.
Let’s see, that’s about two people.
The Piglet Book reveals that overall compensation paid to state employees is down $45 million since 2008. What’s more, the number of workers taking home six-figure salaries has declined significantly. The only wasteful workforce spending the center found was for overtime. It suggested hiring more people to cut that expense.
The book takes notice of all the high salaries and stipends in the University of Maine System, but isn’t sure if they’re justified or not, because finding out would have taken real research. And anyway, the new chancellor has already said he’s going to fix that stuff.
“Is there another government program that has caused more politicians to go to jail than Clean Election campaign funding?” the book asks in arguing for a funding cutoff.
I’m in favor of any program that sends politicians to the pokey, although, to the best of my recollection, only a couple of candidates have actually done time for stealing modest sums from the public trough.
The Piglet project complains that the state spends too much on out-of-state vendors (for instance, $132 in the last three years to companies in Hawaii). It fails to note that federal law prohibits limiting bidding on state contracts to Maine companies. It also doesn’t mention that by buying for less in other states, our bureaucrats are saving taxpayers' money.
It’s not just right-wingers who have no clue how to reduce the budget. Democratic state Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, the incoming Senate president, was asked by the Portland Phoenix for his first priority for spending cuts. Alfond said the Department of Corrections.
If all Maine’s prisons were closed and every inmate released to rape and pillage, it would reduce state spending by about 2 percent, an amount that wouldn’t cover this year’s expected shortfall, and would have almost no impact on the nearly $900 million the state is lacking for the next two years.
Democratic state Senator-elect Anne Haskell of Portland told the Phoenix she’d hack away at the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, the agency that develops all those mistake-riddled budgets. Of course, DAFS spends even less than the corrections department, meaning cutting the whole thing wouldn’t save enough to cover Haskell’s embarrassment.
If somebody asked me how to solve our financial woes, I’d suggest following Harry Frazee’s lead: Call the Yankees and see if they’re interested in buying another chubby guy who swings wildly for the fences and strikes out a lot.
LePage would look good in pinstripes.
Your budget suggestions can’t be dopier than the experts'. Email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.