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Orono isn’t coastal: All Maine campuses need equal access to research funding

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting Buy Photo
Posted July 14, 2014, at 7:40 a.m.
Last modified July 14, 2014, at 1:07 p.m.

The tide doesn’t come to Orono.

Yet Maine’s flagship campus receives the majority of funding from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, while smaller campuses such as the University of Maine at Machias see little of the money that is intended for, among other things, research for aquaculture and marine technology.

I serve on the Maine Government Oversight Committee, which is reviewing how the Maine Economic Improvement Fund allocates its funding.

While there have been no accusations of intentional wrongdoing on anyone’s part, a recent review of the Maine Economic Improvement Fund program by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, raises serious concerns.

The Maine Economic Improvement Fund was created by the Maine Legislature in 1997 to provide funding for research and development in five target sectors for the University of Maine System. The UMaine System board of trustees is responsible for administering the fund.

The Maine Economic Improvement Fund was modified in 1999 when the Legislature created the Maine Technology Institute and added more target sectors.

More changes came in 2012, when lawmakers created the Maine Economic Improvement Fund Task Force and required that some of the Maine Economic Improvement Fund funding go to support research and development at smaller campuses within the UMaine System, including those at Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle. The smaller campuses received a fraction of Maine Economic Improvement Fund funding in 2012 — only $100,000 of the $14.7 million that was allocated statewide.

Brian Beal, who is a marine ecology professor at the University of Maine at Machias, says the system for allocating Maine Economic Improvement Fund funds to small campuses is inherently unfair. The two largest campuses within the University of Maine System (Orono and Southern Maine) are allowed to create line items within their budgets to receive the research money, while smaller campuses cannot and have to compete for the leftovers.

Again, there is no suggestion of wrongdoing or any proof, as of yet, that smaller campuses are being shortchanged. But the OPEGA investigation revealed, among other things, that the Task Force has failed to submit its annual report to the governor’s office and the Legislature, which is required by statute, on how funds are allocated.

The investigation also revealed that the Maine Economic Improvement Fund results were reported either inconsistently or inaccurately. The study concluded neither the University of Maine in Orono nor the University of Southern Maine, the two largest recipients of Maine Economic Improvement Fund funding, have established specific, measurable goals. By statute, they are required to maintain such benchmarks.

Among the recommendations from OPEGA are for the University of Maine System to establish measurable goals and report on them as required and ensure that the metrics being reported on are consistent, complete and accurate.

Furthermore, the recommendations include ensuring the Maine Economic Improvement Fund expenditures at each campus are in alignment with available resources.

I believe this latter recommendation is especially important to smaller campuses such as the one at Machias. That facility conducts ecological research on marine resources that are vital to the Maine economy, such as lobster, soft-shell clams, as well as green sea urchins, sea scallops and hard clams.

Recently, the marine biology program embarked on a study regarding the relationship between wastewater and shellfish.

As members of the Government Oversight Committee, I believe it is incumbent upon us to make sure that the important research being conducted at Maine’s smaller campuses is being properly funded through the Maine Economic Improvement Fund program.

In late August, there will be a public hearing before the Government Oversight Committee on the Maine Economic Improvement Fund program funding, and then the committee will make its final recommendations. For information on that meeting, visit maine.gov/legis/opega/meetings.html.

Hopefully, the final outcome of this process will be the equitable sharing of the Maine Economic Improvement Fund funds for every region of Maine.

Senator David Burns, R-Whiting, serves on the Maine Legislature’s Government Oversight, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Judiciary committees.

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