The trouble with the truth

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  February 2, 2006

I think I deserve considerable credit for not comparing Governor John Baldacci’s state-of-the-state address to the kind of memoir that wins an endorsement from Oprah’s book club. And how about some praise for my restraint in not employing the trendy new word “truthiness” — an unreasonable belief in something despite the facts — to describe Baldacci’s fulsome assessment of his budgeting prowess. Have I so much as hinted that the governor’s comments on the economy reminded me of Rafael Palmeiro’s explanation of how he came to test positive for steroids?

No, so give me my props. Mr. Circumspection, that’s me.

(Which is just my subtle way of saying I’m not buying much of Baldacci’s balderdash.)

On January 17, the day before his big speech, the governor issued a press release touting a report by the National Association of State Budget Officers (a group second only to the Hell’s Angels in the wildness of their annual conventions). The NASBO (love that acronym, very hip-hop) study claimed Maine’s rate of growth in state spending in fiscal year 2006 was just 0.9 percent, the eighth-smallest increase in the country and well below the national average of 6.3 percent.

“This is just another example of Maine getting credit for the job we’re doing from an outside source,” Baldacci was quoted as saying in the release. “Continuing to consolidate statewide services and cracking down on state spending will assure that Maine is fiscally responsible for years to come.”

You can slap me upside the head with a copy of James Frey’s fictionalized autobiography “A Million Little Pieces,” but the NASBO numbers don’t exactly tell the real story.

The association’s report on state spending for 2006 is an estimate. It doesn’t take into account any surprise expenditures between now and the end of the fiscal year in June, such as the $178-million supplemental budget the governor introduced the day after his speech. If that little spending bump is figured into the equation, the increase for 2006 grows to either 1.19 percent — according to Baldacci’s finance commissioner, Rebecca Wyke — or 2.45 percent — according to Baldacci’s press office.

Which one is injecting growth hormones? I’ll leave that to congressional hearings to decide.

Because they both might be wrong. In the past, estimates of spending levels have frequently proved fanciful. In 2002, the budget officers guessed Maine would increase spending by almost 5 percent in fiscal year 2003. Instead, it fell 1 percent. The next year, NASBO predicted a 0.6-percent gain. The actual number was 4.3 percent — if you believe the association of budget officers — or 4.04 percent if you believe Baldacci’s own budget officer. For 2005, NASBO’s guess was a 2.5 percent hike. It was actually more like 5.4 percent (the association) or 5.35 (the administration). But what’s 10 million bucks between friends?

Wyke says the discrepancies are not the result of truthiness, but rather were caused by variations in the periods of time measured and the point in time when the information was collected. Hey, maybe the guys from Enron could try that explanation, too.

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