Not long after our mother’s 90th birthday, we gathered the extended family to celebrate her remarkably vital and engaged life. Each of her four aging children came to the celebration with remembrances of being Nancy Payne’s kids.

It is the tribute by the third and most humorously twisted child that I want to recount. Our brother is a lifelong banker. Meticulous spreadsheets always buttress whatever sensible course of action he plots.

When it was his turn to pay tribute to Ma, he chose to speak gratefully of their financial relationship. I should note that we have never had to lend her a nickel. In fact, she runs The Bank of Mother for her offspring: easy terms, a real helping hand, but with ironclad repayment agreements.

My brother recounted that he had been doing projections recently about his loan payments as well as the sources of income that would keep his finances on target. His plan included an extravagance — a new Harley-Davidson.

But, as my brother explained that evening, a few of the assumptions in his financial planning had hit a bump in the road, forcing him to cancel the order for his new road machine. We all wondered what could have undermined his careful plan and curtailed his spending.

He explained that when using mathematical formulas in a spreadsheet, the formula requires a value in each cell. If the value is removed or corrupted, then all of the other little boxes that are the foundation of the financial projections suddenly transform to #REF! which is code for an error.

The day my mother turned 90, our brother’s spreadsheet became littered with #REF! cells. He never thought she’d live this long! His assumptions were flawed! Payments to her would continue. The windfall of even a minor inheritance would not be delivered as assumed. The irony, of course, is that with kids like us our mother stays sharp as a tack, which contributes to her longevity.

So why the long tale? Spreadsheets in Augusta have become dotted with #REF! cells. The Baldacci administration and the Legislature have been expecting Congress to renew funding for Medicaid and other programs, including nearly $100 million destined for Maine. It hasn’t happened.

I’m sure it seemed reasonable at the time to expect that Congress would continue borrowing from China to pay for today’s expenses.

But who would have thought that the American public would begin paying attention to the nation’s $13 trillion federal debt or to the bailout of Wall Street and the auto business?

Who could imagine people getting upset about state government cutting state aid to education?

Voters are angry and free-spending politicians are nervous.

Gov. John Baldacci and legislators now have to take steps to make more cuts in state spending if the money doesn’t arrive as expected. That means towns, school systems and health-care providers must prepare for another round of cuts.

One candidate for governor, quoted but not identified in a Maine Townsman magazine article, said: “Those of us in Augusta had no choice but to push down state obligations to the municipalities.”

Really? No choice? I wonder who said that and how other candidates feel about that issue.

Maybe that candidate and some others should talk to our mother. Ma grew up through the Great Depression, made no bold assumptions and has always acted to ensure her independence.

She has always lived within her means. Even in her 93rd year, she can stretch a penny into a strong thin copper thread. No spreadsheets, just common sense.

There are choices. It’s just that a majority of our lawmakers as well as one candidate for governor have chosen poorly when it comes to matching the size of government with our ability and willingness to pay.

A majority have over-promised and overspent with our tacit permission. They’ve made flawed assumptions.

When most of us vote, we run through a mental checklist: Have we met? Do I like them? What party do they represent? But the checklist should also include: How do they view the size and cost of government? Does their experience let them understand the challenges of creating and keeping jobs in Maine? Has most of their employment been in the public or private sector? What have they actually done compared with what they say they will do?

So, back to the tale. There is every reason to believe that Ma is going to see 100 and that my brother will continue joking while repaying The Bank of Mother. We sure hope so, because we may be asking her to get us over the next rough spot if voters choose the status quo instead of correcting the errors.

What do you think and what are you willing to do about it?

 

Tony Payne is a lifelong Maine resident who is active in business, civic and political affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]