What did the Legislature have in mind more than a decade ago when it created a new office to review government operations and whether government money was being spent appropriately?

That’s a question up for debate now as the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability starts to investigate Gov. Paul LePage’s threat to withhold state funds from the nonprofit Good Will-Hinckley if it stuck with its choice to hire House Speaker Mark Eves as president.

LePage’s chief counsel raised the question Tuesday, a day before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted on two requests to have OPEGA start investigating. (Now that an investigation will move ahead, it raises another question: Will LePage cooperate with the investigators?) House Republican Leader Ken Fredette has taken LePage’s side in the legal battle.

“The suggestion that the Chief Executive, as prescribed in our State Constitution, should be subject to an investigation by this Committee far exceeds its jurisdiction and the legislative intent in forming OPEGA,” Fredette wrote in a letter to the committee’s chairmen.

The statutory language that authorizes OPEGA seems clear enough: OPEGA has the power to look into not only state agencies and state programs, but the flow of state money to nonprofit organizations. And not only has LePage admitted he threatened to withhold $530,000 in state funds from the organization each year, he intervened to stop a routine, $100,000 payment to the charter school Good Will-Hinckley operates, according to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.

The statute also gives OPEGA the power to examine “any expenditure by any public official or public employee during the course of public duty.”

But what did the Legislature intend? Here’s a look at the legislative debate that happened in 2002 as lawmakers fine-tuned the legislation to create the office. The documents are available courtesy of the Legislature’s Law and Legislative Reference Library.

Revive oversight

OPEGA was meant to revive the Legislature’s ability to carry out oversight of state government, one of the legislative branch’s chief functions. In the 1970s, in the wake of Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, Maine formed a professionally staffed Audit and Program Review Committee. The Legislature later cut the committee’s funding in the 1990s.

Far reach

Lawmakers were on board with forming a body that could look into state agencies and state programs. But a number of legislators wondered exactly how broad the scope of OPEGA’s responsibilities was. Some were concerned. But the language outlining OPEGA’s investigatory authority remained largely unchanged as the bill made its way through the House and Senate.

The lawmakers who crafted the bill consulted with the National Conference of State Legislatures and oversight agencies in Florida, Kansas, Idaho and elsewhere for help with writing the legislation and outlining OPEGA’s responsibilities. They wanted to keep OPEGA’s scope of examination purposefully broad.

Find the facts

In his letter, Fredette encouraged Government Oversight Committee members to hold off on ordering an investigation, suggesting that OPEGA risked being used as a political tool during a highly emotional time in Maine politics. But at least one lawmaker suggested that a time such as this, when not all the facts are clear and when partisan debate about them is rampant, is exactly the right time for an OPEGA investigation.