February 26, 2010

Baldacci's critics should study his achievements

— It is perfectly reasonable to ask the men and women who are running for governor to say what they would do differently than the current occupant of the Blaine House.

And it makes a lot of sense that the candidates would distance themselves from Gov. Baldacci, who is well into his third year of mid-budget course corrections, squeezing money out of already well-squeezed programs.

There are not a lot of coattails to grab if you are looking to make a name for yourself in the gubernatorial sweepstakes.

But to say that Baldacci is wrong to address the latest budget shortfall with short-term solutions instead of fundamentally restructuring government is just piling on.

While candidates should try to divine their programs to distinguish themselves from each other, they are looking from a different vantage point than Baldacci.

DON'T BE UNFAIR

It's easy enough for Baldacci's would-be successors to dismiss his spending cuts as ''gimmicks'' and one-time fixes, but doing so is grossly unfair to a governor who took on a near-impossible task and never shrank from the difficult decisions the task required.

The candidates' criticism also begs the question: What would they have done to deal with the state's budgetary crisis, if dealing with it had been their job instead of Baldacci's?

One of the candidates will eventually get his or her chance to undertake fundamental restructuring of state spending; we eagerly await the result.

Meanwhile, Baldacci deserves praise for the restructuring that has already been accomplished.

He piloted the merger that created the Department of Health and Human Services, the school district consolidation law and the joint operation of the county jails and state prisons.

That has resulted in the closure of outmoded facilities and more efficient use of the ones that remain.

There are fewer state employees now than when Baldacci took office in 2003.

Baldacci should also get credit for the restructuring of the state's natural resources departments, a move that was stalled in the Legislature by parochial interests.

MORE TO DO

Not that there still isn't much that could be done. Baldacci said in his Dec. 18 news conference that he would not consider raising taxes to fix the budget shortfall, in part because the state has not finished the job of making sure that the money already being spent is spent efficiently.

That's why he responded to the decline of state revenue during the recession by cutting spending, even as some members of his own party urged tax increases and fees to keep programs going as they now exist.

In this latest supplemental budget, Baldacci is rightly looking for as many one-time savings -- employee furlough days, for example -- as he can find to minimize the pain the cuts will cause.

A big part of the governor's job as he enters his final year in office is to keep the lights on for his successor -- but in making the hard choices he made in his latest budget, he also positioned the state to begin a major economic recovery when the effects of the recession finally subside.

As the campaign unfolds, candidates should be addressing the reality that most of the state's money is not spent directly by the state but is funneled through school districts and private agencies that deliver services.

Any attempt to make government more efficient will require taking on many of these conflicting interests and will require the expenditure of considerable political capital.

In making difficult decisions to keep the state afloat, Baldacci has risked more political capital than most politicians are willing to spend. He has done his job.

The candidates need to do theirs.

A big part of the governor's job as he enters his final year in office is to keep the lights on for his successor -- but in making the hard choices he made in his latest budget, he also positioned the state to begin a major economic recovery when the effects of the recession finally subside.

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