Bad Timing for ‘Solitaire-gate’

By Kellyn Brown

Recently two state departments have reinforced stereotypes that neither wants. It’s become easier to accuse the Montana government of wastefulness upon revelations that its employees are playing video games and swapping dirty e-mails on taxpayers’ dime.

Late last year, a Department of Corrections employee reported receiving an objectionable e-mail from a co-worker. A subsequent investigation revealed all sorts of lewd note passing, including an e-mail containing a picture of a naked child. In all, 47 staffers were disciplined, but none fired.

Just months later, in March, Department of Public Health and Human Services employees had the audacity to complain that their new computers didn’t include any video games like solitaire and Minesweeper – after all, the older models did. When Lee Newspapers inquired about it, the department promptly erased the games from the old and new computers of more than 3,000 employees.

The recent reports affirm the position many disgruntled Montanans have long held: government at every level is bloated, inefficient and riddled with ineptitude. That’s not all true. For two summers I worked for “the man” on the garbage beat in Yellowstone National Park. It was a good, honest job and there was little, if any, escape from the stench during a 10-hour day. Many of my peers also stayed busy repairing roads and clearing trails. But we wasted a lot of time when the tourists left. And for every hard-working grunt, there was someone about whom nobody could say what exactly he or she did all day.

Such sinecures are rampant as well, of course, in some of the private sector, but taxes don’t sustain those jobs. And in theory, the market will weed out those inefficient businesses in ways that government bureaucracies simply can’t. Government employees should be heavily scrutinized. But superiors at each of these departments had to be told about the computer abuse before realizing that their employees were playing Minesweeper and forwarding inappropriate jokes while on the clock. If an agency is already a target for criticism, you would think those in charge of them would do everything to deflect it. But they don’t.

Yes, state higher-ups have acted swiftly to remedy the issues and assured us that these were isolated instances. But taxpayers in a floundering economy, many of whom already have little patience for government, probably won’t buy it. Who can blame them? From pork barrel spending at the highest federal level, to the number of solitaire games and jokes played at the state level, the general public has plenty to gripe about when it concerns where their hard-earned money goes.

Lately, the top brass has pretended to listen. President Bush, sensing frustration, is sending out tax rebates to stimulate the economy. The plan has already been roundly criticized as too little, too late. Our state lawmakers, who approved a one-time $400 property tax rebate last session, may soon hear similar complaints. The despised “man” sure gives the impression that he is chronically wasting.

After such stories of government waste surface, it’s easy to think, “My tax dollars fund video game tournaments and all I got was this lousy rebate.” I guess the check is better than a T-shirt.

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