EDITORIALS

New government oversight agency not needed

Paul LePage, surrounded by his Cabinet members.
Amber Waterman | Sun Journal
Paul LePage, surrounded by his Cabinet members.
Posted March 29, 2012, at 4:16 p.m.

The LePage administration wants to create a new investigation agency with broad powers to question government officials.

This is not necessary.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has grown into an effective oversight agency. If it needs more authority, funding or staffing to do more reviews or dig deeper into government operations, lawmakers should strongly consider such investments.

This would be wiser than creating a new government entity to do what OPEGA is already doing.

The administration has proposed creating an Office of Policy and Management, which would take on some work of the State Planning Office, which is being abolished.

Jonathan Nass, a LePage aide who discussed the new office with the Appropriations Committee last week, said the governor’s vision for the new office is one that can look at issues and problems across state government and provide him with an analysis of how to address those problems. He said it would be similar to the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the President.

There already are several review entities within state government, including the state auditor and the Bureau of the Budget. The Legislature also has a Government Oversight Committee.

Plus, there’s OPEGA, which has the benefit of being nonpartisan. The office, which Democrats tried to eliminate in 2008, has grown stronger as it has stepped up its investigations of state agencies.

In recent months, it has looked into the Maine Turnpike Authority and found that its former director Paul Violette had misused more than $150,000 in gift cards purchased by the MTA. It also has investigated the Maine Green Energy Alliance, health care in Maine prisons and the Office of Information Technology. It recently has begun an investigation of the Maine Housing Authority.

If the governor’s office has information on other investigations OPEGA should undertake, it should share it with lawmakers to get those reviews going. If the administration thinks OPEGA needs more power, it should make that case.

In addition to being redundant, the Office of Policy and Management would be given the power to subpoena government officials who don’t cooperate with its requests, according to the proposal.

This is redundant because the state Constitution already gives the government the power to demand information. Article V, Section 10 says: “The governor may require information from any military officer, or any officer in the executive department, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.”

Several attorneys in the Legislature are also wary of such a change.

“That is a pretty sweeping authority,” said Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican member of the Appropriations Committee and lawyer in Augusta. “I am not sure I want to give that authority to someone without a judge being involved.”

Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who also is a lawyer and member of the Appropriations Committee, said if a subpoena request is reasonable, he does not foresee a judge rejecting a request. He said there needs to be a proper balance to protect from improper use of a powerful tool for investigation.

Watchdogs, inside and out of government, remain an important check on state agencies and officials. But, without evidence that OPEGA is failing at its job, creating another oversight agency is not necessary.

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