It’s easy enough to define fiscal conservatism as a desire to reduce the size of government by cutting spending and cutting taxes. Apart from the fact that most self-professed fiscal conservatives are quite good at the latter but not the former once they get into office, the definition itself is fundamentally unsound. Rather than focusing on simply shrinking the size of government, real fiscal conservatives ought to focus on ensuring that taxpayer money is spent wisely.

While that will often result in a reduction in spending, it won’t always. Sometimes, there are other ways to ensure the wise use of taxpayer money. This is the case at both the state and federal level, and it’s why simple, across-the-board spending cuts are never a good idea. Some programs need greater resources, some need to be eliminated entirely and some simply need to be better managed. Across-the-board spending cuts ignore those nuances. Similarly, simply throwing money at a problem is rarely the only thing needed to solve it.

The difficulties plaguing Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services are a prime example of all of this. Even if they didn’t necessarily exacerbate the problem, it’s clear that the spending cuts enacted under former Gov. Paul LePage didn’t do much to fix anything, either. In fact, we can say virtually for certain that wasn’t the only problem at DHHS, as Gov. Mills started reversing those cuts as soon as she could. Mills has now had more than four years to fix the problems and hasn’t been able to do it, despite throwing money at the department and a raft of internal reports studying the issues.

Clearly, the problems at DHHS are not just from a lack of funding, or that it is wasting money – indeed, both of those things may be simultaneously true in different parts of the huge, sprawling department. It’s worth pointing out here the true size and scale of the agency: During the last biennium, 2022-23, it was allocated $2.9 billion. That made DHHS the second-largest department in state government, after the Department of Education; the next largest, Corrections, clocks in at less than $500 million. Every two years, DHHS spends almost the equivalent of the entire net worth of Michael Jordan. So, if funding is really the problem, just how much money does it need? Should we double its funding? Triple it? How do we pay for that?

Nobody has any answers to these questions because they know the problem isn’t just one of money, but that they don’t have any other answers, either. Problems are increasing at the department even as we spend more money, and that’s just the problems we know about – especially those with the child services program. It’s clear that we can’t keep things as they are, nor can we continue to throw money at the department – even if we can afford it. Instead, our legislators need to put aside their ideological blinders to really consider the problem.

A huge part of the problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. In order to address the issues regarding child protection in Maine, we must determine exactly why they are occurring before we even begin to consider how to fix them. Just as it’s not simply a matter of increasing funding, it’s not going to simply be a matter of changing leadership, either.

So, we must conduct a full, independent audit of the child protection program, and that won’t be easy, quick or cheap. Now, the independent audit probably shouldn’t just examine the issues surrounding the protection of children, either; instead, it should be a complete examination of the entire Department of Health and Human Services, from top to bottom. If that sounds like an enormous task, it surely is; it ought to be done by an independent firm, not simply another commission hand-picked by politicians. We need to look at the entire department for a couple reasons: first, so that any proposals to fix the issues plaguing child protection can be holistic and systemic and second, to ensure that other programs in DHHS aren’t facing similar problems.

When it comes to solutions, everything and anything must be on the table. There have been various proposals to completely restructure DHHS over the years; a similar plan may be appropriate to cure its current ills. If we aren’t willing to consider anything we can do to fix DHHS, then we’re not doing everything we can to keep Maine children safe.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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