The state’s revenue picture has brightened, officials say — $6 million more than expected rolled in during the first quarter of the fiscal year, not to mention $23 million more than the same quarter last year — but budget cutting is still the order of the day.

Spending on Medicaid, among other programs, evidently is draining state coffers faster than taxpayers can fill them up.

As a result, officials say, the need for $25 million in spending reductions to balance the second year of the state’s $6 billion, two-year budget is more urgent than ever. Members of a special budget task force are leaving no stone unturned in their effort to identify and recommend potential spending cuts.

The task force’s work is important and deserves the public’s support. Slashing an additional $25 million from the budget in a state where spending cuts have become commonplace in recent years is a difficult and daunting undertaking.

Still, we question the wisdom of forgoing a program that wouldn’t affect the state budget for at least two years while providing an important service that could help protect the health and well-being of a vast number of Maine residents.

At issue is a $70,000 federal grant that would finance a program to encourage testing of wells so the nearly half of all Mainers who use private wells for drinking water would be safe from contaminants such as radon, uranium and, especially, arsenic.


Staff Reporter Mechele Cooper reported this week that a request by State Toxicologist Andy Smith to apply for the grant was denied by the Department of Health and Human Services’ grant application review team, a panel formed last March to “make sure every dollar is as effectively and efficiently spent as it can be.”

That quote came from Chris Pierce, a member of the review team and also deputy commissioner of finance for Health and Human Services.

Pierce told Cooper that applying for the grant would be a bad idea because the money would run out in two years and then the state would have to take on the cost of the program.

“If you set up your infrastructure, you’ll be stuck with doing the service,” he said. “It would be entrenched. That’s a dangerous way to do business, and it does increase the cost of government.”

Pierce has a point. Government programs do have a tendency to live forever once they are created.

In this case, however, the program is aimed at a diminishing target.


Previous educational efforts have substantially increased the number of wells that are tested, and it stands to reason that the program envisioned in the grant application would enhance that trend.

When the federal money runs out, the state might want to continue the program, or might determine that is no longer needed. In any case, accepting the grant money doesn’t lock the state into an ongoing program if there is no money or no inclination to continue it when the grant expires.

Oddly enough, Pierce cited the increase in well-testing as a reason to reject the infusion of federal money into the campaign to inform well-users about the hazards they face.

Because of previous efforts, he said, “We have been able to increase the number of households that examined their wells for arsenic from 23 percent to 50 percent, and we thought that we were making significant, steady progress over the course of time. As a state, we understand how important this is and this doesn’t diminish the initiative at all. We are looking at all tax dollars. Do we really need another grant?”

Point taken. But if the state has reached half the people affected by this problem without the grant, couldn’t the federal money help educate the other half that much faster?

This isn’t even a case of penny wise and pound foolish. It’s just foolish.


We understand that we’re still talking about taxpayer dollars here; even though the grant doesn’t tap into Maine’s state budget, it’s public money.

“Just because someone in Ohio is paying for this, does that make it right?” Pierce asked.

To that we say: If someone in Ohio is paying for it, thank you Ohio.

And this: If Maine doesn’t take the money, Ohio or some other state will.

Arsenic in water can cause serious health problems, experts say, including various forms of cancer.

It makes no sense for the state to turn its back on a relatively small amount of federal money that might protect Maine residents from getting sick or dying.

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