April 24, 2018
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Special interests pull out stops to secure state funds

By Earl W. Inman, Special to the BDN

State revenues, once again being far short of projections, have left bureaucrats and special interest groups scrambling to protect their slices of the taxpayer-funded budget pie as lawmakers turn their attention to the biennial budget. In the past, we have witnessed many different methods they have been using for protecting and growing their program, department, nonprofit, project, agency or commission. Some are tried-and-true, some are new and ingenious, some require a constant year-round effort, but all are after more taxpayer funds. The following are some of the most common methods:

Demand more than you need. And squawk when you don’t get the full amount. Your program has a $10 million budget. Ask — no — demand $12 million in order to keep services at present level. When $11 million is offered, squawk loudly and claim it’s a 50 percent cut.

“It is the only place we can cut — aid to needy children and the elderly.” Propose the most egregious, emotional and nonsensical cuts. The idea is to get as many and as diverse a group as possible to oppose the proposed cruel and-or outrageous cuts.

Grow your program’s enrollment. Get as many people dependent on and supportive of your program as possible and change goals as necessary to enroll more. Dirigo Health is a good example of this. Although there are less than 11,000 enrollees in Dirigo instead of the projected 130,000, those current Dirigo enrollees are the single biggest reason the proponents have to continue the exorbitant funding.

Put them to work to lobby. Write to everyone enrolled or whoever has been enrolled encouraging them to show up at any hearings concerning this program or risk losing their benefits. Make sure they are a diverse, sympathetic or intimidating group. Bring in the elderly, children, the disabled, men in uniforms, fishermen and farmers to testify. Avoid men in suits.

Predict large revenues next year. And then base your budget request upon them.

“It will leverage federal dollars.” Many programs can qualify for a “match” of federal funds. This can also be called “free money.” Even if it is one-time money, use it to create a base constituency.

Target unsympathetic groups for revenue that few will defend (smokers, drinkers, obese, the wealthy). “They need to pay their fair-share” or possibly, “it is for their own good.”

“United we stand.” Band together with other special interests and support one another. Ben Dudley’s group, “Maine Can Do Better,” is a good example of how a group of unrelated, government-supported nonprofits can band together to become an extremely powerful lobbying group.

Leave no stone unturned. Look for one-time revenue enhancements such as the sale of the state wholesale liquor business or state lottery business, stretch out payment schedules, or apply taxes to services and items previously untaxed such as casual rentals citing higher taxes in those categories in other states.

Deflect attention from liabilities and debt (unfunded retirement liabilities, conventional bonded debt, etc.) In general, the public has no idea of the amount of debt owed in Maine. Let this sleeping dog lie.

Sensationalize. Remember the anti-TABOR ads? Use words and phrases that create fear, uncertainty and doubt such as “devastate,” “endanger,” “crisis.” Include a study to prove it. Your program is a very necessary “investment.” A contrarian view is simply ignorant.

The heart-wrenching anecdote. If ____Name____ hadn’t been in _____Program ___, he/she would have been ______ pick one — dead, dying, destitute, etc._____

Find that news outlet. Become an “expert” and hunt down those reporters and their TV cameras and microphones.

Do it under cover of night. Insert the most controversial and unpopular policies into the budget at the last minute, preferably at night, and without any public hearing.

Play the “fee” card. The last thing politicians want to be accused of is raising broad-based taxes or the sales tax. Thus the strategy of increasing fees for everything from your driver’s license to your fishing license.

Our elected officials know these games well. What they are counting on is that the average taxpayer doesn’t. The facts of life are that for many politicians the vote of the special interests and bureaucrats is critical to their re-election. To get that vote, they need to give them something in return. The result, of course, is that we have uncontrolled growth in entitlements and state bureaucracy. And, not surprisingly, that means we need more revenue every budget cycle.

If we are to stop this vicious cycle, we need politicians who don’t play by these rules, who will acknowledge only honesty and openness and that are willing to say no. But they are tough to find and to get them elected isn’t easy given the entrenched interests. More than anything else, it requires an informed electorate that won’t be fooled by these tricks and gimmicks and that will hold their elected officials accountable.

Earl W. Inman of Round Pond retired from IBM, where he managed communications and public relations.

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