Mainers can be proud that, unlike national politics, our state legislators work together to solve problems in a bipartisan fashion. As a state senator, I find this to be refreshingly true.
Amidst the media accounts that highlight the few differences we have, these facts remain: Five of the six challenging state budgets we adopted over the past two years were passed with two-thirds majorities and well over ninety percent of all legislative business in committee and on recorded votes is bipartisan.
This is true even when you consider the change in direction the Legislature took after the 2010 election. Together, we enacted bipartisan reforms to Maine’s tax, welfare, pension, health insurance and education systems. There were a relatively small number of issues that captured headlines. There were also a few times where the most partisan members of the Legislature criticized Republicans for wanting to review existing programs to ensure that monies were being used efficiently and effectively. The most notable examples of this were efforts to review spending at the Maine turnpike and state housing authorities.
When we called for an independent investigation into these two programs by the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, the most partisan members of the Legislature immediately opposed any review, claiming that any inquiry was a politically motivated “witch hunt” and a waste of time. In the face of this criticism, we pushed forward.
Unfortunately, what was uncovered was worse than anyone imagined. The OPEGA review turned up questionable spending at the Maine Turnpike Authority by senior officials and a lack of official oversight by the MTA board of directors.
An investigation into no bid contracts, exorbitant and/or questionable sponsorships and donations, excessive travel and meal expenses, and the use of paid lobbyists by a quasi-state agency was conducted. The former Executive Director pleaded guilty to felony theft of between $150,000 and $230,000 and is now serving time in prison.
In the case of the Maine State Housing Authority, or MSHA, the committee that I chaired — the committee on labor, commerce, research and economic development, identified a need for the MSHA executive director to be accountable to the board of directors like most housing authorities.
This took place at the same time the then-director was under fire for questionable expenditures of taxpayer monies, including: “affordable” efficiency units with price tags of $250,000-plus per unit, excessive raises for employees (while state employee pay was flat), and a project approval process that did not consider the expense of projects as a key part of its funding criteria.
Ultimately, Democrats and Republicans on our committee recognized the need for oversight by the MSHA board over its executive director reflecting a more appropriate corporate-type structure.
The executive director resigned prior to application of the new oversight, and before the results of a separate investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, into claims that MSHA provided improper oversight of the Section 8 housing program. Just this week, we learned the results of this investigation initiated at the behest of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
The HUD inspector general’s audit found that MSHA mismanaged its Housing Choice Voucher program. In 87 percent of the units it inspected, clients were not living in decent, safe and sanitary conditions. MSHA is being asked to repay HUD at least $200,000, money that could go toward reducing the waiting list for 6,500 low-income Mainers awaiting affordable housing. Still pending is an inquiry into whether or not another $111,742 paid to a consultant was properly charged to the Homeless Management Information Systems.
I am confident that the implementation of the changes approved by the Legislature and with the installation of John Gallagher as director to oversee the dedicated MaineHousing employees that MaineHousing is on exactly the right track to meet the needs of Maine citizens.
These two investigations alone underscore the need for transparent review of how taxpayer-funded agencies are being operated to ensure that people are being served effectively and with dignity. We can’t turn a blind eye to criticisms by watchdog groups or just assume that the way things have been done for years is fine.
Luckily, few people in the Legislature are so partisan that they won’t support reasonable inquiries into how things are done, and whether or not they can be improved upon. In Maine, our elected officials continue to work together constructively to address pressing problems, identify opportunities, and make the best decisions we can on behalf of our constituents.
Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, chairs the Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee and is a member of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee along with the Regulatory Fairness and Reform Committee. Rector represents Maine Senate District 22 which includes the Knox County communities of Appleton, Camden, Criehaven Twp., Cushing, Hope, Matinicus Isle Plt., North Haven, Owl’s Head, Rockland, Rockport, South Thomaston, St. George, Thomaston, Union, Vinalhaven and Warren.