Cloudy Spending Picture

Posted Sept. 26, 2008, at 9:11 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:24 a.m.

Maine government, like that in any state, spends a lot of money. Without knowing if those expenditures get the desired results, it is impossible to know if the money is well spent.

That is the drawback of a new Web site unveiled this week by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank. The center is to be commended for collecting reams of records on where state money goes. Without providing any context for this information, however, most visitors to the Web site (MaineOpenGov.org) will be shocked by the size of many payments, especially salaries. Last year, for example, more than three dozen school superintendents made more than $100,000. Are these school superintendents overpaid or are those with smaller salaries underpaid? Do higher salaries attract better superintendents? Does this translate into better student achievement?

The Web site reveals that the University of Maine men’s hockey coach is paid more per year than the state’s chief justice. Is hockey more valuable than justice? Does having a winning hockey team attract more students to the University of Maine? Does it boost donations to the campus? How does this private support help offset declining state support?

Last year, the state spent nearly $300,000 on fresh fruits and vegetables for prisoners. It spent $212,000 on canned fruits and vegetables. Should it save money by buying more canned? Isn’t fresh (and preferably locally grown) better from a health perspective, thus saving taxpayers money by reducing inmates’ health care costs?

These are difficult questions that aren’t answered by long lists, even if they are searchable.

“To us, it’s not about spending more or spending less, it’s about spending smart,” said the center’s director Tarren Bragdon.

By just providing lists of state spending, the Web site provides no insight into whether state spending is smart. Instead, a likely conclusion by those who search the Web site is that the state simply spends too much money. Given the center’s long advocacy of reduced state spending, this is not an accident.

By collecting and compiling this information, the center has begun the important work of assessing state spending. To complete that work, state expenditures must be measured against desired and mandated outcomes. Otherwise, seeing how much the state spends on health benefits, mileage and bottled water is not very helpful.

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