Nobody dies

The Department of Economic and Community Development dodges the axe
By AL DIAMON  |  December 30, 2009

Some things in life are essential — beer, the MLB Network, caller ID — and some things aren't — tofu, Jay Leno, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

In tough times, we all have to make sacrifices, and it makes sense to start with nonessentials. So this recession will have to get a whole lot worse before I celebrate happy hour with a glass of water and the Soap Opera Channel, while fending off phone calls from special interest groups ("Did you see our executive director on Leno's show last night?") trying to connect me to my senator's office so I can urge her to vote for a bailout of the tofu industry.

As for the state economic development department, I had convinced myself that, as a result of the current budget crisis, it was nearing the end of its wretched life. No longer, I was certain, would it be wasting tax dollars by studying things that didn't need to be studied, planning things that were never going to happen, and trying to develop things that shouldn't be developed.

The reason I felt the end was near for DECD (I just realized that if you changed the word "Community" in the department's name to "Annoying," the new acronym would be "DEAD") was because top officials were finally talking as if they planned to get rid of some of the worthless pustules growing on the body of Maine's government.

"We have to look at eliminating programs," Democratic state Representative Emily Cain, co-chair of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, told Capitol News Service in July.

Democratic state Senator Bill Diamond, the committee's other co-chair, made a similar pronouncement in the Maine Sunday Telegram that same month. "We have to do it," Diamond said. "We don't have any choice."

"We're going to have to eliminate entire programs or agencies," Democratic state Senator Margaret Craven, a member of Appropriations, told the Lewiston Sun Journal in August.

In September, the Sun Journal quoted Republican state Representative Sawin Millett, likewise a member of the budget-writing committee, as saying, "[W]e cannot preserve and protect funding for every program we now fund." Capitol News reported that "whole programs will need to be eliminated," citing GOP Senator Richard Rosen, who also sits on Appropriations, as its source.

Measure a coffin for the economic development bureaucracy, I thought. Pick out a burial plot.

My reasoning in assuming DECD would be targeted by the budget cutters seemed sound. The department doesn't actually do anything, so if it ceased to exist, nobody would lose their food stamps, heating assistance, or other life-sustaining benefits. It's hard to imagine low-income moms and unemployed dads picketing the State House to restore funding for a bunch of policy wonks.

And if the department got the ax, could tofu and Leno be far behind?

But my carefully constructed scenario crumbled like recent state revenue projections. When Democratic Governor John Baldacci released his supplemental budget on December 18, not only didn't DECD become DEAD, neither did any other government agency.

"[I]t would have been much too severe to close the entire gap with cuts alone," said Baldacci, explaining why he preferred to use accounting gimmicks to cover the shortfall. "These one-time tools are a better alternative than additional, painful cuts."

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