A recipe for disaster or reform? LePage cuts are a bit of both

Maine Gov. Paul LePage shakes hands after giving his State of the State address in in the house chambers in Augusta on Tuesday.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Maine Gov. Paul LePage shakes hands after giving his State of the State address in in the house chambers in Augusta on Tuesday. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 11, 2013, at 1:29 p.m.

It’s underwhelming when the first major report from an office formed to make government operations more efficient and effective comes back full of promises from state agencies to save money by keeping vacant positions vacant, photocopying less and cutting back on office supplies.

Then again, it’s a reminder that re-envisioning the way state government operates is more than a three-month process.

Gov. Paul LePage’s Office of Policy and Management recently unveiled its recommendations for $35.5 million in state budget cuts. The 115-page report came out of the office’s charge in the two-year state budget that took effect July 1: Keep the budget in balance by finding cuts that can be made by the executive branch on its own or through legislative action, and recommend those cuts by Sept. 30.

While we would have liked to see this document outline a strategic plan of sorts for reforming Maine state government — setting out core priorities and aligning spending accordingly — we understand the constraints of time (three months to find $35 million in savings) and that the directive limited what the document could be.

And while we’re disappointed with some of the recommendations, we’re encouraged by some of the thinking on display in the report.

First, a reality check. Spending on two categories alone, K-12 education and health and human services, accounts for more than 70 percent of the budget. If there’s an order to find $35 million to trim from the budget, it’s inevitable those two areas will be affected.

The LePage administration did attempt to shelter public schools. They’ll sustain no cuts this school year. Next school year, though, they would give up $9.6 million, but — in a nod to LePage’s frustration with Maine’s high school administrative costs — only those schools that report higher per-student administrative spending.

A look at recent trends in education spending, however, hints at what a strategic plan for reforming state government should recommend.

Special education has grown as a portion of school spending, while the percentage of funds devoted to regular instruction has declined. In 2010-11, special education accounted for 14.1 percent of Maine schools’ budgets, compared with 12.3 percent in 1997-98.

Special education is expensive, and research shows investments in early childhood education can reduce the need for it later in a child’s life, avoiding the high associated costs.

A long-term plan would also address Maine’s spending on corrections through a strong commitment to early childhood education. Research shows that participation in early childhood education also correlates strongly with reduced spending on corrections and public welfare and increased lifetime earnings — with increased tax revenue for the state.

Alas, the package of cuts is just that — cuts. It wasn’t within the scope of the Office of Policy and Management’s charge to recommend strategic investments.

But in terms of thinking strategically, the office’s report fell short with its recommendation that all state funding for Head Start be eliminated. The move might save $450,000 in the short term, but Maine’s taxpayers would pay for the consequences in the long term. Additional cuts to higher education are also cause for worry.

The report also fell short with its overall approach to finding $35 million in cuts: It sought proportional amounts from each agency, sending the message that each state program is as important as the next. After all, a frequent complaint about the $85 billion in cuts made to the federal budget earlier this year is that the cuts weren’t applied strategically.

That’s not to say there’s no strategic thinking in the Office of Policy and Management’s report. The office worked with the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation to recommend eliminating state licenses for a handful of professions — from landscape architects to athletic trainers — that don’t necessarily need close state regulation because they already rely on trade certifications.

And the office suggested that the secretary of state eliminate the position of small business advocate. Republican Charlie Summers added that job when he became secretary of state in 2011 following a Republican sweep of state government. It was part of a promise to put state government on the side of small business.

As it turns out, few businesses have called on the advocate to advocate for them. If businesses need help, they can probably find it within the Department of Economic and Community Development.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/10/11/opinion/a-recipe-for-disaster-or-reform-lepage-cuts-are-a-bit-of-both/ printed on September 15, 2014