February 23, 2019

Buyer, beware! Not all state investments pay off

Smart buy: The killer shoes you bought that go with everything and always get you compliments. Not a great choice: That case of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine you hoped to age in your cellar. No one needs to tell you to evaluate your versions of these investments. You do it because repeated purchases of even cheap wine add up.

That’s not how the state sees things.

As the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability (OPEGA) pointed out last week, Maine risks losing a lot of money in its development programs “because critical elements necessary for evaluating performance and achieving real transparency and accountability have been and still are, lacking.” The state can’t say how well programs are working, which ones aren’t cost-effective and what better choices it could be making – so it could, for instance, be missing out on the next LifeFlight.

Three years ago the Maine Legislature and subsequently voters decided to spend $3 million to improve the safety and performance of medical helicopter service. The service is used when seriously ill or injured patients are transferred from smaller hospitals to larger ones or, occasionally, from an accident scene to a hospital. The minutes it saves in transport can make the difference between life and death.

Bond money, administered by the LifeFlight Foundation, has gone toward building 17 helipads and fixing up eight others. No longer must one rural hospital use firetrucks to block traffic on a nearby road so a helicopter could meet an ambulance to transfer a patient.

But the money goes to projects beyond safe landing areas. About $400,000 was spent on a mobile simulation lab, in which doctors and other health-care providers train on the latest equipment (with high-tech dummy patients that breathe – or stop breathing, depending on the treatment). The lab travels statewide to give care providers experience they otherwise might not get.

The money also purchased high-capacity fuel trucks for medical aircraft, which at the Northern Maine Regional Airport, says Tom Judge, executive director of LifeFlight, also meant the airport was then able to quickly refuel C-130 transport planes. Those military aircraft that once were forced to use services in Bangor and truck equipment to the Loring Commerce Centre could land in nearby Presque Isle instead, supporting the airport and saving the military expense.

And there is more coming from the money – hospitals are being equipped so that helicopters can take off and land in bad weather, and eight small airports will be getting weather stations to close the gaps in reporting on conditions statewide. The $3 million for all of these projects was often only start-up funding – the matching dollars from hospitals, airports and others is expected to be another $12 million.

“I’m not sure the Legislature understood this when we first went in for the bond money, but we told them the money would be a catalyst,” says Judge, “and it’s come through in spades.”

Sounds great, but how does this compare with the $3 million Maine spends annually on the Shipbuilding Facility Credit or the more than $30 million on the machinery sales tax exemption? Is there another LifeFlight out there that would return the same kind of results? No one knows because no one has looked. Looking in a time of scarce funding could threaten a pet project.

This is a loss not only because it may mean government is spending tax dollars ineffectively but that, without a sense of the value of these programs, whether they exist or not seems arbitrary. The LifeFlight money was part of a much bigger transportation bond in 2003. You may have noticed there was no such bond in 2006. That’s because lawmakers couldn’t agree on one so forced Maine to do without. Perhaps they gave up on programs that cost very little but saved lives, or one that could have inexpensively helped a small airport thrive.

Lawmakers commonly talk about the hard choices they face, between services and tax levels, between established programs and new ones. But the choices often are hard because they are guesses, based on competing lobbyists fighting over a limited budget with even more limited information about the effects of the options.

The solutions get easier – not necessarily more comfortable politically – when the kind of evaluation OPEGA urges is done. It wants Maine to examine the state’s 46 tax-incentive programs, training initiatives, its commercial loan insurance program and a bushel of agricultural subsidies. I think the LifeFlight investment would stand up very well against the many other bonds Maine has passed in recent years, but let’s analyze bonds too.

And if I’m right, we can celebrate the good choice we made with LifeFlight. But let me bring the wine.

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.

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