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Will Montpelier embrace Obama's slogan?

In July 1995 William Sorrell, administration secretary for Gov. Howard Dean, released a list of 59 "cost-shrinking ideas" for state government, to meet that year's fiscal crunch. The great majority of them proved to be pious hopes unsupported by analysis, schemes for reshuffling bureaucracies, and earnest entreaties to "promote efficiencies." Few if any were ever implemented, but somehow Vermont made it through 1996.

Now, 14 years later, the governor and legislators are facing a total of $66 million in general fund reductions to meet expected revenue shortfalls in Fiscal Year 2009, with upwards of $176 million more necessary for FY 2010.

On Dec. 17 the Joint Fiscal Office released a "master list of reduction ideas," culled from proposals emanating from both the legislature and the administration.

Most of the 140 proposals are predictable: freeze spending on vehicles and space leases; impose reductions in force (layoffs); leave vacant positions unfilled; deplete special funds with unused balances, reorganize bureaus, scrap non-productive boards and commissions, increase fees, premiums and co-payments; reduce or eliminate tax exemptions; and plead for more federal assistance.

Suppose a politically painful but ultimately agreed-to collection of such proposals is adopted by the new legislature. Suppose further that the state can emerge from the hard times, say in 2011, and ride the wave of the Obama economic boom. Then what?

Then as new revenues become available, almost all of next spring's hard-nosed decisions will one by one be reversed. And as soon as the next downturn materializes, governor and legislators will start the same revenue raising and spending reduction exercise that they went through in 1996 and 2009.

There is a way to get off this roller coaster: change the way state government operates. To do that requires investment in a performance review.

Performance review is a careful and deliberate study by knowledgeable and disinterested people of what state government has agreed to do, how it does it, and how what the people want done can be done better and more efficiently. The goal is to balance over the long term the cost of state government's programs and the revenue from taxpayers, without raising taxes that would kill future economic growth.

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