This week the Lucius Flatley coffee shop seminar took on the challenge of Maine’s budget. They did not consider programs, but dealt only with possible savings.

The first and nearly unanimous suggestion: legalizing and taxing marijuana. The seminar estimated that a tax of half the size now levied against tobacco would bring in enough money to pay the cost of the University of Maine. Participants also predicted additional savings in police, who, relieved of chasing doobies, could turn their attention to seat belts, helmets and distracted drivers.

One member, who dunks his doughnuts, noted that the feds still have on their books Nixon-era laws that make sin and the devil out of the ancient hemp plant. The resulting conflicts between two levels of government would confuse the Maine law enforcement community – so a second option could be to mimic New Hampshire’s sale of fireworks: merchandise it only for out-of-state use.

The second generally agreed proposal was to release all prisoners held for victimless crimes. It costs about 40 thousand bucks a year to keep a prisoner (including free dental care), so dumping a thousand of these freeloaders would mean $40 million for Maine Medicaid – or 800 new school teachers. While seeing the wisdom of such a move, objection was raised by some Catholic church members who felt that prison life has doubtless taught the inmates a good deal about loving your brother – and such habits might spread into the wider community, resulting in a sharp increase in same-sex marriages.

A third idea was to eliminate the Clean Election funding. The program has cost the state around $7 million in recent elections and, with so many citizens looking for work, it seems likely to hit $10 million in the next election – an amount that would pay for 200 new teachers or 100 cops (cops cost more). The Clean Election funding was designed to eliminate the influence of corporate- or special-interest operators waving wads of the old green. As a matter of history, at the time this capacious idea became law, there had been no Maine legislators charged with crookedness in living memory; the idea sounded attractive to those who would benefit from the dough. However, since this Clean Election money began to flow, ambitious candidates have fiddled with the funds every election. One clever lawyer and his wife got away with a hundred grand. The loophole he discovered has since been closed – but the greed engendered by such magnanimous strewing of public money is certain to continue to attract others with similar standards. The end result is: The law seems to have encouraged hanky-panky.

But the group finally discarded the idea. Many of them felt that denying this extra free money might leave a lot of legislators on relief.

The final item for general discussion concerned an extraction tax for water such as Gov. Palin and her sled-dog legislators charge for oil taken from underneath Alaska. One hundred million gallons at a buck a gallon would raise the price of a bottle of water by only a dime – an extravagance easily affordable to joggers and other health seekers. Such a tiddly amount would produce sufficient funds for the community college system.

But that proposal was also discarded. Nestle is not known for purity (see current cookie dough recall and baby food problems some time ago), so they might just start dipping into the Hudson River and calling it Polling Spritz. Whereupon Maine would lose the tax on diesel squandered by their trucks.

Other items suggested, or noted from news reports, included:

• Illinois announced last week that it would stop paying about $15 million a year for about 10,000 funerals for the poor.

• Oklahoma is cutting back hours at museums and historical sites, and New Hampshire wants to sell 27 state parks.

• Indiana sold a state toll highway, and several states decided to charge for calls made by police or medics.

• Others have long since sold renaming rights – such as the Enron Stadium in Houston.

These renamings touched a chord: the Maine State Pier could become Hooters Harborside. Freeport could become L.L. Bean; Cumberland County Civic Center, Pirates Den; Saco, Funland; and Old Orchard, Quebec South. Sgt. Maybelle Frosik of the Maine Patriotic Gun Owners objected to a name proposed as Minuteman Municipal. She preferred Minute-people – but rebelled at the idea of paying for the change.

The meeting adjourned as several members left to file their candidacy for governor in order to qualify for a few thousand free Clean Election dollars.

Rodney Quinn, who lives in Gorham, is a former Maine secretary of state. He can be reached at [email protected]

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