In her zeal to fill next years $1.4 billion state budget hole, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has dispatched Lt. Gov. John Cherry to shrink state government from 18 departments to eight.

The idea sounds nice. Having fewer state departments would seem to mean big savings. Fewer directors. Fewer high-level staff. Fewer appointees.

But its all big pop and little bang. Prisoners still need to be kept behind bars. Speeders need to be stopped. Welfare checks need to go out.

Whether the employees hired to do these jobs work for the Department of Corrections or some ber-department that mixes paving roads with testing beef, somebody needs to do the work.

And for that reason, combining state government departments without whacking programs or services doesnt do much than create a pretty foil to cover up whats probably going to end up balancing this states budget the next two years — President Barack Obamas stimulus package, which was approved by the Senate Tuesday.

I tested this theory with six former state directors, deputy directors and long-time lawmakers.

By 4:30 p.m. we had an 18-department state government down to nine. If that pesky state Constitution let us lop off the secretary of state’s office, we’d be at eight.

We put all the uniformed state employees together. The counties put their jails and road patrol units together. The state can, too. Add Corrections and the state police with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and you get the Department of Public Safety.

The federal government has a Department of Health and Human Services. Why does Michigan need separate departments for Community Health and Human Services?

We put the Information Technology Department into a new administration department and grouped the DNR and the Agriculture Department with certain functions of the DEQ. All of the state’s regulatory functions went into one department. All education and job training efforts went into another. The Department of Civil Rights, which investigates discrimination claims, was folded into the attorney general’s office.

By the time we were done, we were pretty proud of ourselves. We made state government smaller! Or did we?

When we added up the few positions we cut and some of the duplicative functions we may eliminated, we’d saved state government a few million bucks. Maybe.

When youre trying to get to $1.4 billion, thats chump change.

In Lansing a common phrase — with a doff of the hat to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois — is, “You save a million here and a million there and suddenly you’re talking real money.”

Or are you? I could find two pennies, a nickel and a dime under my seat cushion, but I still only have 17 cents. That’s not going to buy me a junior bacon cheeseburger at Wendy’s, let alone cover a winter heating bill.

You could eliminate the entire Legislature — staff, lawmakers and all — and still need to cut $1.3 billion more.

Cherry could come back and say the lieutenant governor should be put in charge of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., thereby eliminating a $400,000-a-year post. It’d be an excellent suggestion, but it’d be a drop in the bucket.

To cut $1.4 billion, state programs and services would need to vanish.

Theres no other way.

If it could have been done any other way, Granholm and the Legislature would have done it in 07.

State Senate Republicans actually came up with a stinky list of $1.8 billion in cuts back then — but never had the stomach to vote on them. The Democratic House put the list up for a vote to prove a point. Nobody voted for it.

Why? Because cutting $1.4 billion from state government means eliminating state funding for universities, or shuttering three-quarters of the state’s prison system, or booting a lot of people off public assistance.

One estimate has the state getting $1.4 billion in Obamabucks to duck behind next year, sparing decision-makers from having to close the state parks or cutting 10 percent of state payments to K-12 schools.

State government may look smaller after Granholm and Cherry are done with it. It may even need a little less money to function. But until the economy picks up again and the state Treasury starts seeing better tax receipts, we can thank Obama for not having to use the butcher’s knife on Michigan government.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write