A 25 million dollar savings? Really?

Posted Tuesday, November 29, 2011 in Analysis

A 25 million dollar savings? Really?

by Gina Hamilton

A 12-member panel appointed by Gov. Paul LePage to find $25 million in savings in state government has completed its work, his office reported Tuesday.

Known as the Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force, the group wrapped up its work Monday by agreeing to a series of cuts across a variety of departments.  Some of the cuts reflect ending relationships with outside vendors or contractors and doing work in-house that was formerly placed out.  Service contracts will end.  A few vacant positions will not be filled, a staff metrologist will be dismissed.  There were a number of accounting tricks that will not affect the day-to-day running of the government, such as moving an attorney's position to a 'special funding' category instead of the Attorney General's account.

Other items, such as using technology to largely end paper check processing, will result in real savings, although the numbers may be optimistic.  Also optimistic is the notion of the savings that will occur as a result of Public Law 2011, Chapter 380 (this biennium's budget), especially the personnel and retirement income provisions.  Since many employees will take advantage of the early retirement incentives, there may be very little savings in the first 20 years or so of the program, a fact that was pointed out over and over as the budget was being hammered out.

Arts will take a hit.  Art conferences will be cut, as will grants that supported local artists, as well as developing art for public spaces. The Maine State Museum will lose funds, as will the library, and funding for historic preservation, humanities, and town historical societies will be lost. Maine Public Broadcasting is losing more than $46,000 in state funding.

Also on the chopping block will be higher education.  Over $664,000 will be cut from the Maine Community Colleges, in staff salaries and student services.  Students will also lose nearly $300,000 in student financial assistance, and the Maritime Academy will also lose over $128,000.

County jails will also be hit, to the tune of over $335,000.  One recommendation, that the Downeast Correctional Facility should be closed, was ultimately rejected by the task force. 

Small businesses will also be hurt.  The University of Southern Maine's comprehensive small business assistance program will lose $200,000, and cuts will be made to the Maine Technology Institute, which is instrumental in helping small entrepreneurs get established. 

Parents of special needs children will lose the option to have the children remain in the Child Development Services program for an additional year before beginning kindergarten.  This is expected to save $850,000, but much of the funding will probably be borne by public schools, who must add special ed teachers to work with the children in special education classes or in regular kindergarten programs.

But schools aren't likely to have the funding, either.  They will lose $2,000,000 in this fiscal year, and another $450,000 in FY2012-13.  Adult Ed is slated to lose $100,000, and school operations will lose another $150,000 from 'anticipated savings' due to technology.

The Department of Health and Human Services will also face stiff cuts, and it is not at all clear that many of the programs will actually save any money.  First, additional funds are being allocated for mental health/retardation - to the tune of nearly $1.5 million.  Many of the cuts are focused on in-school health care centers and methadone clinics, and those dollars will simply be transferred elsewhere in the system.  School children may lose campus health care services, but they will be treated elsewhere, largely with MaineCare dollars.  If methadone treatment is limited to a maximum of two years, the costs will show up in the corrections and public safety systems beyond that. 

Some of the changes do make sense, including consolidation of pharmaceutical purchases through a single large supplier that has established a contract with the state of Maine, rather than paying individual providers whatever the provider cares to charge.  But some cuts are just counterproductive and will cost the state far more in the long run.  An example is the WrapAroundMe program, a program that works with children in the state system or juvenile justice system and provides additional services - mental health, medical, family support - through a single clearinghouse, such as Sweetser.  All team members meet regularly and collaborate on the child's needs and progress while the child lives in the community in the least restrictive environment possible.  Without it, children will be referred to in-patient programs, or jail, at significantly higher costs. WrapAround is scheduled for a 50 percent cut in FY 2012-13.

Other funding cut offsets are based in nothing but wishful thinking.  Cuts to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families are expected to be offset by collecting an annual $25 fee in certain child custody cases.  However, this is expected to offset $110,000 in TANF spending, which seems like a bit of a pipe dream.

Other cuts are just mean-spirited, affecting the most vulnerable in society - the dying, the blind, the homeless, the unemployed, the indigent facing the criminal justice system or need help negotiating the legal system - all will suffer cuts.  Search and rescue programs that train dogs ... often the only way to find a frightened child in the woods in the dark ... is being cut by $15,000.  Women, Work and Community, which provides help and mentoring for women facing work transitions ... is losing $60,000.

About 100 positions will be eliminated, from the biennial budget and through the Task Force's work.

The $25 million identified still needs approval of the Legislature and will be subject to public hearings likely beginning in January.  However, the $25 million in proposed cuts may be a short-term victory. The Department of Health Human Services is experiencing a greater shortfall than even expected earlier this year.  Mary Mayhew, Commissioner of DHHS, caused gasps when she announced a $71 million gap; that has now grown to $121 million, utterly dwarfing the best-case scenario for the Task Force's savings.  Most likely, the DHHS gap will be covered with an emergency supplemental budget to be announced in the next couple of weeks, and voted on in January.

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