AUGUSTA – A van for the Legislature.

Grant money to help young professionals.

Art exhibits and conferences.

Is this how Maine taxpayers’ money should be used?

Members of the state’s Streamline & Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force want to take a close look to answer that question.

“When you get beyond (public safety and education), the tentacles start getting pretty long and everyone relies on the state for funding for everything,” said Joe Bruno of Raymond, a former House Republican leader and a member of the group that must recommend ways to cut at least $25 million from the state budget.

The three examples discussed at a recent meeting of the panel — and dozens of other small expenditures in state government — won’t get the group even close to the target, which some fear will grow to $100 million by early next year.

But at least a few members say the state needs a review of how and where tax money is spent, even if the amounts are small.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, who serves on the task force and is a co-chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said the focus on small items is a reflection of just how difficult it is to continue to cut the state budget.

“It’s simply confronting a reality that we are facing not only the immediate assignment of cutting $25 million, but we have major storm clouds on the horizon,” he said.

Those storm clouds include uncertain state revenue and a likely decrease in federal funding.

Over time, Rosen said, various state laws requesting funding for one group or another add up and “get institutionalized,” so it’s important to revisit some of them.

Ryan Low, a task force member who was the state’s chief finance officer under Gov. John Baldacci, said even though some members want to make the small cuts quickly and move on, there is a need for more extensive discussion.

“The problem is, there are a lot of $777 items in state government,” he said. “If you’re one of these small agencies, that $1,000 or $2,000 cut is a big part of their budget. I think we have to give them the time to make the case.”

Low agreed with Rosen that many of the smaller expenditures come from legislation that has stayed on the books and been rolled into the budget every year.

“There’s a lot of places in the budget, especially money for small groups, where money was included when the state was in a better financial situation,” Low said.

Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, a task force member who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said the state must stop making across-the-board cuts.

“Before we cut, we should prioritize,” he said. “The government can’t be all things to all people. Look at the business the government should be in, then fund that business.”

YOUTH PROGRAM AT RISK?

At a recent meeting, the task force tabled any action on a proposal to reduce grant funding for Realize!Maine, a program designed to keep more young people in the state.

The program gets $30,000 to $35,000 a year from the state. The money is used for the Maine Development Foundation to provide oversight and is given to groups of 20- to 40-year-olds through a competitive grant program, said Ed Cervone, senior program director for the foundation, a private nonprofit membership organization.

He said the $1,608 the foundation offered as a budget cut, suggested by the state, helps fund the grant program, which draws private money. Eight groups compete for the funds, which go to community projects such as a volleyball court in Augusta, mentoring programs, and an awards ceremony in Portland honoring young entrepreneurs.

“The emphasis is on young adults,” Cervone said. “If it is a value to young adults, it is going to be a value to everyone in the state. We do not give grants to throw parties.”

Through a separate allocation, the Maine Development Foundation gets $58,000 a year in state funds. That money pays for the work of the Maine Economic Growth Council, which produces an annual report on the state of the Maine economy, Cervone said. Staff members travel the state each year to talk about the report’s findings.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, a task force member who also serves on the Appropriations Committee, said it made sense for the group to delay action on some of the smaller items so they could be bundled for review later.

She said the task force also needs more information from the groups, such as how much money they get from the state’s general fund and whether they have special revenue accounts.

‘PRETTY MUCH DOWN TO THE BONE’

In response to the administration’s request for cuts, the Maine Arts Commission offered $6,479, which would “reduce our ongoing support for arts-related conferences and exhibitions,” the commission wrote in documents supplied to the task force.

Donna McNeil, executive director of the arts commission, said her independent agency gets about $738,000 a year from the state and $577,000 from the federal government. She said the commission is doing its part by offering the $6,479 cut.

“We’re pretty much down to the bone now,” she said. “I deeply believe government should be a partner in the funding of the arts.”

The task force delayed a decision on the cut, preferring to get more information at a future meeting.

MONEY’S WORTH FOR VAN

So what about the Legislature’s van?

The topic came up during an overview of the state’s central fleet. Information provided to the task force shows the state has more than 2,000 vehicles, including 297 for the Department of Conservation, 210 for Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and 343 for the Department of Transportation.

The chart also lists one vehicle for the Legislature.

Dwain McKenney, director of Central Fleet and Central Services, said a 2004 Chevy Venture van, with 105,168 miles, is assigned to the House.

Before it was put to use by the House Clerk’s Office, it transported prison inmates and was used by the Department of Marine Resources and the state lottery office.

Vans were first assigned to the House and Senate in 1999, when renovations at the State House caused public hearings to be moved to off-site locations, said House Clerk Heather Priest. The vans were used to transport lawmakers to the hearings. The Senate got rid of its van in 2001.

Priest, who took over as clerk in December, said use of the House van has declined dramatically. Her office pays a $150-a-month fee to use the vehicle.

“I’m truly looking to get rid of the van,” she said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]