Al Diamon

Al Diamon

What a waste

Let’s try to set aside all this anger, profanity, racism, sexism, misinformation and political posturing. In other words, let’s not discuss Paul LePage, governor, self-appointed education commissioner and giant bedbug infestation.

Instead, let’s turn our attention to a matter of significance to every Maine taxpayer, namely how much money state government is wasting in trying to do whatever it is state government is supposed to be doing. Surely, on this topic, we can find common ground, whether we’re conservative, liberal or one of those creeps who panders to every possible special interest (looking at you, Hillary). Because all of us agree there’s pork aplenty in Augusta.

Trouble is, we don’t agree on the definition of pork.

If I hadn’t already banned all mention of LePage, I’d bring up his irrational contempt for the Land For Maine’s Future program, which conserves vital resources, such as wilderness, family farms and working waterfronts. The governor-who-must-not-be-named insists LMF is riddled with corruption, but an investigation by his own henchmen determined it was competently run and effective. I assume LePage is currently hiring new henchmen.

Then there’s last November’s successful referendum increasing the amount of public funding for gubernatorial and legislative candidates. This measure is to be paid for by eliminating $6 million in “low-performing, unaccountable” tax breaks for businesses. Which should be easy, since those programs cost over $300 million a year and produce little in the way of quantifiable public benefit. In 2006, a report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability concluded, “Current reporting on economic development programs is inadequate for providing transparency and accountability; for comparing the performance and costs of individual programs; and for understanding the state’s portfolio of [programs] as a whole.”

Since then, nothing has changed, and it’s unlikely this year will see a disruption in the status quo.

While conservatives defend those tax breaks as necessary to keep every company in the state from fleeing to New Hampshire, left-wingers are equally adamant in supporting another type of handout. Numerous studies have shown that taxpayer-funded research and development grants to universities and private enterprises produce about one job for every $100,000 spent. It would probably be more cost effective to buy lottery tickets.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a right-wing think tank, recently published its latest edition of the “Maine Piglet Book,” which purports to be a comprehensive listing of government waste, but mostly devolves into a rant against liberals, welfare, state employees, welfare and liberals. The book contains lots of numbers but makes little effort to provide context, such as when it informs us, “Augusta spent what the average Mainer makes in a year in less than two minutes.”

What a fun two minutes that must have been.

It’s also selective in placing blame. “As a result of progressives’ push for more government spending and waste,” the book says, “Maine’s next biannual budget will spend roughly $300 million more than our last budget.” It neglects to mention that LePage’s original spending plan included more than $250 million in new expenditures, or that Republicans overwhelmingly supported the budget.

The center does make some valid points, noting that the $25 million spent on Clean Elections since 2000 has resulted in a Legislature that’s slightly less diverse but no less dominated by longtime pols. The book also highlights the presence of $43 million in “miscellaneous” spending. But rather than delving into where that money goes, it prefers to offer generalities (“Not only are many agencies redundant or unnecessary …”), trivialities (the state spends $51,000 a year on bottled water) and absurdities (because wealthy people have a lower rate of tobacco use than poor people, “revitalizing Maine’s economy by cutting taxes could substantially reduce smoking”).

There’s lots of space devoted to welfare extravagances (asylum seekers soak up $2 million a year in benefits out of $50 million spent – and that doesn’t even count the cost of what LePage calls the “ziki flies” they bring with them) and abuses (court-ordered restitution for welfare fraud averages about $250,000 per year – enough for a five-year supply of bottled water). For some reason, there’s no mention of questionable tax breaks for businesses.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Waste, it would appear, is in the ideology.

 

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Ramblin’ gamblin’ man

Free Shawn Scott.
I mean that metaphorically, of course, since Scott, a Las Vegas gambling developer, isn’t currently incarcerated. My call for his liberation has less to do with shackles and chains and more to do with him being constrained by legalities in his effort to build a casino in York County.
I admit that as a poster child for a leniency campaign, Scott leaves much to be desired. According to published reports, his past is littered with lawsuit – more than three dozen in an eight-year period – as well as associating with a criminal type and being less than forthcoming in providing required financial information to the Maine Harness Racing Commission during an earlier, extremely lucrative foray into Maine.
In 2003, Scott engineered the passage of a referendum allowing a racino next to Bangor’s harness racing track, of which he was the majority owner. He risked nearly $3 million on purchasing his interest in the track, and state and municipal referenda legalizing the gaming operation. But his investment paid off. In 2004, he sold both facilities to Penn National, a major operator of casinos, for approximately $51 million. 
Now, Scott is attempting a similarscheme in southern Maine. Using financing from his sister, a Miami developer, he’s pushing another referendum to allow him – and, according to its convoluted wording, only him – to plop a gambling facility right in the midst of the most heavily populated and wealthiest part of the state.
There are, however, a few annoying legal entanglements impeding his progress. First, there’s the 61,123 signatures of registered Maine voters needed to trigger the referendum. The outfit Scott hired to collect those names appears to have quality control problems, since nearly half the signers in several of the state’s largest municipalities turned out to be unregistered, duplicates or potentially fictional. By the time you read this, the Secretary of State’s Office may have already rejected the whole mess for failing to meet the law’s requirements. That means there won’t be a referendum, which means Scott can’t build a casino he can then sell to some big operator for big bucks.
As counterintuitive as it seems, that just ain’t right. 
For murky reasons, Maine treats casinos differently from other types of businesses. If Scott wanted to open a pharmacy, convenience store, dog kennel or even a Walmart, he wouldn’t need a referendum to make it legal. He’d have to deal with zoning, licensing, environmental impact and similar red tape. Given the rampant NIMBYism in much of the state, he might have to contend with protesters and reluctant local pols. But entrepreneurs overcome these obstacles every day to start breweries, hair salons and laundries. Surely, a slick operator like Scott wouldn’t be deterred by an indifferent bureaucracy or scruffy picketers.
No matter. Under state law, casinos, other than the two we have now, are essentially illegal. The justification for this prohibition is twofold:
1. Additional gaming emporiums would compete with the existing ones, making them less profitable.
2. Gambling is evil. On that first point, the obvious counterargument is: Who cares? There’s nothing in the Constitution requiring state government to protect the profit margins of the giant conglomerates that own our casinos. If a new facility with a prime location caused one of the less conveniently situated operations to go bankrupt, that shouldn’t be of concern to our lawmakers. It’s essentially the same situation as when Hannaford opens a new supermarket, forcing the family-owned grocer out of business.
As for the second reason, evil already abounds in local commerce. Maine currently allows the sale of cancer-causing tobacco products. You can legally buy pesticides that are fatal to honey bees. There are no laws against dealing in alcohol, firearms, pornography or Macklemore CDs, all of which are considered by some segments of the population to be affronts to humanity. But casinos are singled out for being so detrimental to society that we’d sooner allow Donald Trump in the White House than permit another one to be built in Maine.
That’s ridiculous. The solution is to free Shawn Scott. But be sure to free the rest of us, too. Because if anybody can get a gambling permit, I know exactly who won’t be interested in applying.
 
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The ballad of the Hulk

In the comic-book world of Maine politics, the conservative think tank called the Maine Heritage Policy Center has often played the role of Dr. Bruce Banner, the tortured soul whose body harbors a gamma-ray-created monster called the Incredible Hulk.

Portrayed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Careful what you say

If it weren’t for the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, I’d have to get a real job. But the qualifications listed in help-wanted ads almost never mention contempt for authority, indifferent personal hygiene and prodigious consumption of beer, rendering me ill-suited to anything resembling regular employment.

You shouldn’t have bought it when you saw it at …

The trait his supporters like most about Paul LePage is also the flaw that makes him a failure as governor.

Fans of the Republican chief executive claim they love that he’s not a politician. He says whatever he thinks — without considering the consequences. He disregards the facts — fabricating factoids as he goes along. He makes enemies — out of folks who ought to be friends.

Who’s crazy?

POLITICS & OTHER MISTAKES

Which side in the debate over General Assistance is correct?

That’s easy.

None of them.

Certainly not the city of Portland, which admits it regularly and knowingly allowed people with assets ranging from $20,000 to as much as $160,000 to stay in its homeless shelter on the taxpayers’ tab. Portland’s excuse is that these folks were suffering from mental illnesses that somehow made it impossible for them – or anyone else – to manage their affairs. Rather than attempt to correct that situation, the city opted to let them occupy its limited shelter space, because it could always bill the state for the cost.

Alligator stomp

POLITICS & OTHER MISTAKES

Maine does a great job of figuring out the cost of maintaining its transportation infrastructure. Every year, the state releases a detailed report showing how much it needs to provide safe passage across the landscape for residents and tourists, whether by automobile, rail, or teleportation device.

County lines

Nominations are now open for the person who most

resembles county government in Maine.

First up is Alex Rodriguez. The disgraced New York

Yankee is expensive, unproductive and obnoxious. If there

were three of him, he’d be a county commission. Except with

bigger muscles and smaller testicles.

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