Some things in life are essential — beer, the MLB Network, caller ID — and some things aren’t — tofu, Jay Leno, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

In tough times, we all have to make sacrifices, and it makes sense to start with nonessentials. So this recession will have to get a whole lot worse before I celebrate happy hour with a glass of water and the Soap Opera Channel while fending off phone calls from special interest groups (“Did you see our executive director on Leno’s show last night?”) trying to connect me to my senator’s office so I can urge her to vote for a bailout of the tofu industry.

As for the state economic development department, I had convinced myself that, as a result of the current budget crisis, it was nearing the end of its wretched life. No longer, I was certain, would it be wasting tax dollars by studying things that didn’t need to be studied, planning things that were never going to happen and trying to develop things that shouldn’t be developed.

The reason I felt the end was near for the DECD (I just realized that if you changed the word “Community” in the department’s name to “Annoying,” the new acronym would be “DEAD”) was that top officials were finally talking as if they planned to get rid of some of the worthless pustules growing on the body of Maine’s government.

“We have to look at eliminating programs,” Democratic state Rep. Emily Cain, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, told the Capitol News Service in July.

Democratic state Sen. Bill Diamond, the committee’s other co-chairman, made a similar pronouncement in the Maine Sunday Telegram that same month. “We have to do it,” Diamond said. “We don’t have any choice.”

“We’re going to have to eliminate entire programs or agencies,” Democratic state Sen. Margaret Craven, a member of Appropriations, told the Lewiston Sun Journal in August.

In September, the Sun Journal quoted Republican state Rep. Sawin Millett, likewise a member of the budget-writing committee, as saying, “[W]e cannot preserve and protect funding for every program we now fund.” Capitol News reported that “whole programs will need to be eliminated,” citing GOP Sen. Richard Rosen, who also sits on Appropriations, as its source.

Measure a coffin for the economic development bureaucracy, I thought. Pick out a burial plot.

My reasoning in assuming the DECD would be targeted by the budget cutters seemed sound. The department doesn’t actually do anything, so if it ceased to exist, nobody would lose their food stamps, heating assistance or other life-sustaining benefits. It’s hard to imagine low-income moms and unemployed dads picketing the State House to restore funding for a bunch of policy wonks.

And if the department got the ax, could tofu and Leno be far behind?

But my carefully constructed scenario crumbled like recent state revenue projections. When Democratic Gov. John Baldacci released his supplemental budget on Dec. 18, not only didn’t the DECD become DEAD, neither did any other government agency.

“[I]t would have been much too severe to close the entire gap with cuts alone,” said Baldacci, explaining why he preferred to use accounting gimmicks to cover the shortfall. “These one-time tools are a better alternative than additional painful cuts.”

Among the other survivors of this round of reductions was a state agency that had predicted it could not possibly survive another round of reductions. Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey warned the Appropriations Committee in September that “we are at the core of our operations,” and before further reductions could be made, legislators and the governor would have to decide “what services we are no longer going to offer.”

The Baldacci budget reduced DHHS spending by almost $68 million, but didn’t actually get rid of anything.

“Rather than wholesale elimination of programs,” Harvey announced on Dec. 18, “we have made reductions in the quantity of service and reimbursement rates.”

Please ignore her earlier statement about that being impossible. Like the economic development drones, much of the human services bureaucracy could be eliminated without noticeable impact on humans or services. The department already has a computer to mess up Medicaid. Keeping people around to add to the confusion seems redundant.

Likewise, the Department of Education could shed the $100 million it spends on administrators who have absolutely nothing to do with teaching anybody anything. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife could manage without everybody who doesn’t have clothing smeared with fish scales or bear entrails. And the state court system could streamline operations by merging the District and Superior courts, thereby requiring any judge to hear any case.

That would get us closer to funding just the essentials.

Although I don’t see any money in there for beer.

My caller ID still works, so if you want to reach me, you’ll have to e-mail aldiamon@herniahill.net.