Turnpike scandal may force more oversight on independent agencies

Traffic approaches Maine Turnpike booths in Gardiner in February 2011.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Traffic approaches Maine Turnpike booths in Gardiner in February 2011.
Posted May 08, 2011, at 12:40 p.m.
Last modified May 09, 2011, at 12:01 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the wake of finding lax controls and oversight by the Maine Turnpike Authority, members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee want more stringent oversight and spending controls in place at all independent state agencies.

“We are looking at the quasi-independent agencies like FAME [Finance Authority of Maine] and the Housing Authority,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the committee. “There is no suggestion that anything improper is going on at these other agencies just that if we are going to have travel and gift and other policies at the Turnpike [Authority], we should look at them for other agencies.”

He said it is clear there was a failure by the board members at the MTA to properly oversee the operations of that agency. He said that while the MTA board of directors now has adopted policies on travel and gifts and brought in outside oversight of expenditures, those actions do not apply to the other independent agencies.

“What we want to do is to make sure that quasi-governmental agencies are working under the same guidelines,“ said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, the committee co-chairman. “It may be that we need to put those in statute; that is something we need to look at.”

He said that in the case of the MTA, the board did not have policies in place until they were investigated by the Office of Fiscal and Program Accountability. He said part of the committee review over the summer will be to assess what policies are in place, whether they are effective and what new policies are needed.

“It’s clear to me that we have some problems in other agencies,“ said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro. “We have seen instances of some questionable expenditures for meals and travel.”

He said that it may not be enough to rely on boards to adopt policies, and the Legislature should consider requiring policies based on minimums set by law.

State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who sits on the boards of many independent agencies, has been critical of some expenses. For example, he said, the $8,600 spent by the Maine Municipal Bond Bank to send its director and several employees to New York City was excessive.

“We should look at all of these agencies and what they are doing over the summer and have legislation ready in the fall so it can be considered next session,“ Katz said.

Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, agreed with the need for a study of all of the independent boards and agencies. He said that too often the board members do not exercise the needed oversight of the agency. He said the MTA board is a clear example of trustees not doing their jobs.

“One of the problems that caused this is that the board thought the executive director was running the agency when it is the board that has the responsibility of running the authority,” he said.

Several members of the committee want to recommend reducing the length of terms of the turnpike board from seven years to four or five years, the length of most turnpike boards around the country.

But Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, argued that making a recommendation to change the length of terms should be delayed.

“We are going to be looking at all agencies over the summer, and we should consider recommending a length of term for all of them and not just the turnpike,“ she said.

Rep. Don Pilon, D-Saco, disagreed. He wants the panel to recommend a four-year term for turnpike authority members while legislation is being considered this session to reform the agency. He said the MTA reforms can serve as a model as the panel is looking at other agencies later this year.

“We need to fix the MTA and we need to do it this session,” he said.

Katz said the Government Oversight Committee has made several recommendations to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and that panel is considering a bill that incorporates most of the concerns raised by the OPEGA study. He said that while that panel is looking to reform the MTA, it is the GOC that should look at broad reforms to apply to all of the agencies of state government.

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