There is nothing wrong with zero-based budgeting as a new way to look at allocating state financial resources. But, the budgeting technique, which was all the rage decades ago and is now being adopted by the LePage administration, is no panacea for reducing spending on state government.
Whether you build a budget from scratch or use the previous one as a template matters less than what spending priorities are clearly articulated. The Republican leadership in Augusta has yet to clearly state those priorities.
We know that rooting out welfare fraud is a top concern. So is reducing red tape to make the state more business friendly.
But when it comes to funding state departments, it is unclear which ones the LePage administration thinks should get less money. Are there some that should get more?
Without this overall framework set by the governor’s office, it is hard for department heads to know what to include, and what not to, in their future budgets.
In announcing the state’s move to zero-based budgeting to help find $25 million to be cut from the current two-year budget and to craft the next biennial spending plan, Gov. LePage said that every program must be examined to calculate the need versus benefit to the state.
“Programs need to fit within the core mission of their department,” he said last week. “We need to make sure the programs we undertake have a benefit to taxpayers and are living up to the core missions.”
He is absolutely right about ensuring that programs fulfill their missions, but before getting to the level of individual programs, the governor and his department heads need to begin their budget work at a higher level.
Is every department necessary? Is the current configuration the most efficient and effective? For example, does the state need — and can it afford — separate agencies to oversee inland fisheries and wildlife, marine resources and state parks and public lands? A proposal by the Baldacci administration to merge these agencies and the Department of Agriculture met with stiff resistance and was dropped.
Such thinking should be revived and expanded to look at all state agencies.
If Gov. LePage and Republican leaders in the State House want to leave a lasting mark on state government, remaking it so it better serves the public while reducing bureaucracy and saving money would be a great legacy.