Chronichitis

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  December 23, 2008

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 crisis, 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 Representative 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 Governor 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.

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