AUGUSTA, Maine — Revelations that the director of the state turnpike authority stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the agency left many — including lawmakers — shaking their heads. “Where was the oversight?” was a common refrain.
To tighten management of quasi-governmental agencies such as the Maine Turnpike Authority, lawmakers are considering legislation to make these entities subject to greater oversight of spending practices, contract awards and lobbying activities under a bill written in the wake of last year’s turnpike controversy.
A public hearing was held Monday on LD 1843, a piece of legislation drafted by staff at the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability at the request of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, the House chair of that committee and the bill’s sponsor, said lawmakers wanted to create legislation that could tighten accountability not only at the MTA but at other quasi-state agencies.
“[The MTA] was spending money in a way that was unacceptable,” he said, referring to the activities of former executive director Paul Violette, who stepped down in the wake of an investigation and later pleaded guilty to felony theft charges. “The committee felt there were other entities also potentially at risk, so seemed appropriate to apply remedies to more than just the MTA.”
In addition to the MTA, the Legislature’s oversight arm, OPEGA, also found questionable practices at the now-defunct Maine Green Energy Alliance and is investigating charges of financial mismanagement at the Maine State Housing Authority.
The changes that are proposed for nearly 30 identified agencies under LD 1843 include: adopting more stringent policies for the selection of vendors and ensuring that a competitive bid process is used whenever possible; restricting any contributions to entities that directly support an agency’s mission; limiting reimbursements for travel, meals and entertainment and prohibiting an agency from hiring an outside lobbyist.
The agencies also would be asked to submit regular reports on activities to the Legislature beginning in 2014.
Among the agencies listed are: the Finance Authority of Maine, the Maine Community College System, Efficiency Maine Trust, the University of Maine System, the Workers’ Compensation Board and the Maine State Housing Authority.
MaineHousing also is the subject of a separate accountability bill that received initial approval last week from the Legislature’s labor committee.
A number of people, mostly lawmakers, spoke in favor of LD 1843 on Monday. Jonathan Nass, a senior adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, told committee members the administration strongly supports the bill.
Some, mostly the agencies themselves, feared that inclusion on the list of quasi-government agencies that could face more scrutiny is black mark, according to Beth Ashcroft, director of OPEGA. None testified in opposition Monday.
Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, said she supported the bill but had concerns about whether the changes would results in a “witch hunt” on some agencies.
“I need some reassurance that we are going in with a fair and balanced look,” she said.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, Senate chair of the oversight committee, said the intent is not to punish agencies that have been operating above board but to create better oversight for the ones that are not.
Of the more than 70 quasi-government agencies that were initially looked at, fewer than 30 were identified for inclusion in LD 1843. However, there is a provision in the bill that allows the next Legislature to add agencies.
LD 1843 is scheduled for a work session and vote of the State and Local Government Committee meeting on Wednesday. It then goes to the House and Senate.