MATTHEW GAGNON

‘Found’ money: Maine still needs reform

Posted April 05, 2012, at 4:53 p.m.

Let’s say that you are having a rough time lately — not a stretch of the imagination for a lot of folks. Life is not treating you very well. You just had to accept a pay cut at work (but are thankful you still have a job), your health insurance premiums have been going up, your car has needed some work and maybe you just found out that you are going to owe the government money on your tax return this year.

You are in the red. You are using one credit card to pay another. Your bills are piling up. Collection agencies are calling your house. Things look bad.

What do you do? Well, if you have any sense, you would take stock of your life and evaluate everything you spend money on. You would start to find some extravagances that you once thought were essential, but are obviously little more than luxuries now.

You probably don’t need HBO; you really only have it for Game of Thrones anyway. That car you bought last year was always a little expensive for you. You eat out too much, which is making you fat and is more expensive than going to the grocery store. Does your five-year-old really need her own iPhone? Probably not.

Any normal person would start to make some changes to his life: get a reasonable cable package, maybe sell the car and get a more affordable one, eat out less and get rid of a lot of nonessentials.

Normal people probably also start to realize, after they did all this, that a lot of those things they used to “need” really didn’t add much to their lives.

How then, would you react if suddenly you were given a $2,000 bonus at work for a job well done? Suddenly you have some extra money and things aren’t as tight. Do you go right back to your old ways, finding things to immediately spend your bonus on so you can keep living higher on the hog than you probably should? Do you keep your more lean lifestyle and start to save that money?

This is a decision governments face all the time, and they almost always make the wrong choice.

Maine learned Tuesday that state finance officials have found an extra $14.3 million in state revenue due to an accounting delay by the Maine Revenue Services. For a state that is bleeding money, that is a pretty significant sum.

What will the appropriators do with that money? Do they marshal on with needed reforms to the extremely flawed system, or do they sigh with relief that a little bit of extra money will help excuse them from making some hard decisions?

Granted, this extra money is by no means enough to make up the famously gargantuan holes in the Department of Health and Human Services, or cover up some of the other structural problems in Maine’s welfare state. Indeed, it is a Band-Aid which would be placed over a giant sucking chest wound. But it is a Band-Aid nonetheless, and lawmakers have a nasty habit of doing everything they can to avoid harder decisions than they are forced to make.

It has always been easy to make the right choice when there is a metaphorical gun to your head. Giant budget holes and statutory requirements to balance those budgets necessitate (and excuse) hard decisions being made. There really isn’t any choice.

And of course, in good times it is easy to make the wrong choice. Flush budgets and growing economies mean that hard decisions don’t need to be made, structurally deficient states can hide that fact and money can be wasted with no consequence. Senate candidate Angus King proved that in his tenure as governor.

But Maine is facing significant challenges, and suddenly extra money has presented itself. Now the real test for lawmakers will come.

That “extra” money is a mirage. It shouldn’t be applied to badly managed government departments and wasteful, inflated budgets to help mask their inherent problems. Maine still needs reform, and that a $14 million surprise does not change that fact.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

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