AUGUSTA, Maine — Since Republicans took over the Maine House and Senate and Blaine House last year, there has been increased interest in examining the finances and management of state agencies.
Many times, those requests go to one place: the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
The nonpartisan group, created in 2002, works for the Legislature to investigate and review state agencies and departments that lawmakers decide merit scrutiny. In most cases, the goal is to find ways to improve financial efficiency but, in some cases, misuse of public funds has been uncovered.
OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft briefed members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday about the work her office undertook in 2011. Her message was clear: OPEGA is being asked to do more and more by lawmakers and often is being asked to do it in an expedited way.
Ashcroft said she was proud of the work her staff has done in the past year but said if things continue at the same pace, she’s worried about OPEGA’s ability to keep up.
Lawmakers unanimously praised Ashcroft and her staff for their work but acknowledged those concerns.
“I’m amazed at how you and your staff are able to balance the needs and the wants of 12 people here,” said Rep. David C. Burns, R-Whiting, co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee. “I share the same concerns. None of the work has been trivial and we’re asking you to do more and more important work and we need to staff you for it.”
Added Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco: “[OPEGA] is like an old golden retriever: you want to please everybody and you can’t do that. We have to be cognizant of that and be careful about what we ask this organization to do.”
Ashcroft said OPEGA completed seven projects in 2011, more than any other year since the agency was established. In addition, there were eight legislative requests for review.
OPEGA has conducted thorough reviews of the Maine Green Energy Alliance, the Maine Turnpike Authority, health care in Maine prisons, the Office of Information Technology and a review of state land sales in the wake of a now-defunct transaction to Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhardt.
In the case of the Maine Turnpike Authority, OPEGA’s review uncovered theft and misuse of funds by former director Paul Violette, who resigned shortly after the review was launched. Violette has since settled a civil lawsuit and pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
Most recently, OPEGA has been asked to review financial practices at MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, in light of criticism from some board members and others. That review is now considered OPEGA’s top priority.
In many cases, Ashcroft and her staff were asked to help draft legislation in connection with some of those reviews. She’s working on a bill that would create a policy for how to handle state land sales and said Friday that three more pieces of draft legislation are sitting on her desk waiting to be finished.
Another concern Ashcroft mentioned was her inability to follow up on past OPEGA reviews.
The Legislature funds OPEGA at about $1 million annually, but it’s not clear if there is any push to increase the group’s funding, particularly in the current economic climate.
In 2008, the Democrat-controlled Legislature proposed eliminating OPEGA in a supplemental budget. That item eventually was stripped before the budget passed.
Last September, Gov. LePage proposed creating an Office of Policy and Management to ensure programs are being managed efficiently. That office is designed to look at programs in a more systematic way, and not “the issue of the day” that OPEGA probes, LePage’s senior policy adviser Jonathan Nass said in September.