Politics & Other Mistakes: Fiction of her dreams

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If you promise to read this column all the way to the end, I’ll give you $50,000.

Al Diamon

I’ll also throw in a new Porsche. And I’ll guarantee you’ll lose 20 pounds without dieting or exercising. Your hair will become thicker. Your teeth will turn whiter. Your breath will be fresher. You’ll be offered an executive position at a Fortune 500 company. And a movie star will ask you out on a date. (You’re not obligated to accept that last prize if the movie star turns out to be one of the aliens in “District 9.” Or Adam Sandler.)

Before you rush to collect your winnings, however, you should know that there’s one itsy-bitsy, almost insignificant catch:

I’m lying.

Even if you finish this entire essay, even if you look up all the big words you don’t know the meaning of – like calumniation – that I insert here and there to improve your vocabulary and drive you dithyrambic, you still won’t receive so much as a phone call from an enormous shrimp-like creature with disgusting personal hygiene (“Hi, this is Adam Sandler”).

I have subjected you to this cruel trick not because I enjoy causing you distress (although that’s certainly an additional benefit), but to illustrate an important point about the state budget. Which is:

When important government officials tell you the current spending plan is balanced, they are full of coprolite (don’t just guess, you’re supposed to look up words like that if you want that Porsche).

Take, for instance, the section of the two-year state budget passed in 2007 that called for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (motto: We Do Not Provide Welfare To Space Aliens – Except Occasionally, By Accident, When Our Computer Screws Up) to save $29 million by improving its management of health-care programs.

Anyone in his or her right mind – and even people who aren’t, like legislators – could be excused for expressing a bit of skepticism. Soon after those prospective budget cuts were approved, DHHS commissioner Brenda Harvey warned in an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News that instituting them would test the limits of her awe-inspiring administrative skills.

“The complexities of this challenge are difficult to comprehend,” Harvey said. “DHHS has many efforts under way to manage costs even more effectively and to assure that people receive the right service, at the right time, for the right duration and the right cost.”

Shortly thereafter, state officials discovered that Harvey’s previously approved proposal to turn over operation of the Elizabeth Levinson Center in Bangor, a program for severely mentally handicapped children, to a private operator in order to save $411,000 a year hadn’t worked out exactly as planned. According to a story in the Bangor Daily, the first year’s benefit to the state budget came to $569.40.

OK, so she was off by $410,430.60. No wonder she referred to her next round of budget cuts as a “change package.” As in spare change.

Harvey seems to have learned that being too specific can get a commissioner in trouble. So when ordered to make additional reductions last year, she fudged it a little bit. She told legislators the details on those cuts “aren’t soup yet.”

More than a year and a half later, that pot has yet to come to a boil, possibly because it’s emptier than my promise of a big cash prize. And as Maine Public Radio recently reported, Harvey’s 2007 prediction of $29 million in administrative savings has thus far amounted to doodly (which means the same as “coprolite,” only squishier). In addition to that little problem, it appears the department has managed to run out of money in the first quarter of this fiscal year and needs a budget boost to meet current expenses.

I’m not suggesting that Harvey lied when she promised to find all those administrative savings. (Well, actually, I am, but for some obscure journalistic reason, I’m only allowed to say stuff like that in parenthetical expressions.) I’m not suggesting that Harvey has the financial management skills of the average shrimp. (The kind that lives in salt water, not the space-alien kind – and as long as I’m again shielded by parentheses, I might as well admit that, in fact, I am suggesting that very thing.) I’m merely pointing out that when a bureaucrat pledges to cut administrative costs, she is, in effect, promising to slit her own throat.

Unfortunately, that would only be a one-time savings. There’s no chance we’d be able to convince her successors to do the same thing every year.

When it comes to the state’s least-fortunate citizens, I’m sure DHHS does a great deal of good with our tax dollars. (It isn’t Harvey’s fault if I can’t think of any examples.) But as with my promises of wealth, beauty and celebrity sex, it’s no longer conceivable that anyone could accept the commissioner’s budgets as anything but sad fantasies.

Which means that when it comes to cutting DHHS expenses, the coprolite is about to hit the fan.

Electronically epistolize to me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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