$2B in wasteful state spending claimed

Posted Sept. 24, 2009, at 10:30 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of a ballot measure that would cap government spending released a list Thursday of what they described as billions of dollars in wasteful state spending.

But Baldacci administration officials said the report’s authors with the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center appear to have skewed facts and figures or omitted important information to make an ideological, anti-government point.

“Their data is in some places old and outdated and in other places contradictory,” said Baldacci spokesman David Farmer.

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The Maine Heritage Policy Center and Citizens Against Government Waste described their “2009 Maine Piglet Book” as a way to “educate the public about the waste, mismanagement and inefficiency of state government.”

The list contains what the authors claim is more than $2 billion in current and past wasteful state spending over a five-year period. Among the examples cited are $82,533 for bottled water and more than $60,000 in overtime for one state employee in 2008. That year, 10 employees made as much or more in overtime as they did with their base salary.

“The spending highlighted in the ‘Maine Piglet Book’ spells out a clear message that can no longer be ignored: Government spending is out of control,” said Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative public policy organization.

The groups held a press conference on the same day that legislative budget writers continued their efforts to identify tens of millions of dollars in additional cuts to a two-year budget that is $500 million smaller than the previous spending plan.

The report also comes roughly five weeks before Mainers vote on a ballot initiative that would require voter approval of any tax increases or government spending above a set limit. The Maine Heritage Policy Center is a major force behind the ballot measure known as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR II.

Among the report’s claims are that state government has spent $435 million for “over-employed and over-compensated” state employees and $99.4 million in “questionable capital building project recommendations.”

It refers to $155 million in Dirigo Health spending as a “boondoggle” and Maine’s Clean Elections fund as $17 million in “welfare for politicians.” The report also singles out individual projects such as improvements to state parks.

David Crocker, who heads the TABOR NOW campaign, said Maine residents have “suffered a very long time under a government that outspends its resources and always seeks more revenue.”

Democratic lawmakers and Baldacci administration officials disputed much of the report, however.

For instance, Farmer said the state’s work force has shrunk by roughly 1,000 positions since 2002, including several hundred positions eliminated in the current budget.

Additionally, he said, several of the spending items come from dedicated revenue streams, not the General Fund. Dirigo Health has received the vast majority of its funding from a fee assessed on paid health claims. Likewise, money used for a new Maine Turnpike Authority building and more than $100,000 for artwork at a Kennebunk rest stop came from tolls, which are the MTA’s dedicated funding source.

Staffers in the legislative and executive branches also pointed out that some of the capital projects listed among the questionable building expenses were merely recommendations that never were built due to the recession.

For instance, the study cites as examples of waste a $45,000 playground, a $40 million cultural building and $16 million in renovations at the Department of Health and Human Services office.

Those projects were never funded, said Crystal Canney, a spokeswoman for Citizens Unified for Maine’s Future, a group opposing TABOR II.

“Mainers should not be fooled,” Canney said in a statement. “This is just another blatant attempt to push their agenda with little regard for the facts.”

Martin Sheehan with Maine Heritage Policy Center clarified Thursday evening that requested funding for construction projects was included in the report because they provided insight into budget priorities. However, items that were not funded were not included in the $2 billion total used in the report.

Rep. Emily Cain, co-chairman of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said she was disappointed with the anti-state government tone of the report. She also said aspects of the report were misleading and did not take into account the importance of many expenditures, such as safety repairs at state parks or playgrounds.

But Cain pledged to review the report.

“I am certainly open to all ideas to save money and I will take a serious look at any suggestions,” said Cain, D-Orono.

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