AUGUSTA, Maine — Two Republican state lawmakers say they want more accountability from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, created from a landmark settlement against tobacco companies.
Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls and Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner are asking the Government Oversight Committee for a formal review.
The settlement, which was reached against tobacco companies for misleading the public about the health risks of smoking, provides more than $50 million per year to Maine.
Under state law, that money goes into the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which was created to help improve health outcomes for Mainers. The problem, said Timberlake, is that it is not clear how that money is being spent.
“We should know how much of that money is actually getting to the end user and how much is being used to pay for salaries,” he said. “And that’s the biggest reason. It’s a lot of money.”
Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta serves with Timberlake on the Appropriations Committee. He also co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee. He shares Timberlake’s frustration with getting information about how money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine is used and whether it is used effectively.
“I understand Rep. Timberlake’s frustration, and we do deal with it on Appropriations all the time,” Katz said. “There may well be a role here for OPEGA, but that is a decision that 12 others collectively will have to make.”
Katz doubts the committee will consider its request at the next meeting in October because of the heavy agenda already scheduled.
Rep. Chuck Kruger, a Democrat from Thomaston and co-chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said the panel reviewed contracting procedures for the Fund for a Healthy Maine last year.
“So that makes it a little bit easier to gather information, or the initial information, which is what we need before we bring it to the committee and consider whether to go forward,” he said.
A separate review of the fund is scheduled to get underway later this month in the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
“I’m thinking that maybe a lot of this work will overlap what we are going to be doing in HHS, so a lot of these questions are questions that we will probably be asking also,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, a Democrat from Westbrook and co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. “We are certainly going to start out with a pretty careful review of the current allocations.”
But Mason said he’s less interested in the actual allocations than he is in the kinds of accounting controls that are in place. He said it is a job made for the professional staff of the OPEGA office.
“The OPEGA committee is known for its hard work, its bipartisan work and its right-to-the-facts reporting, and I think that an investigation of the Fund for a Healthy Maine is more than warranted,” he said. “And, let’s hope there is nothing wrong. If there is, let’s fix it.”
Timberlake said he is not alleging that there have been improprieties in the use of the fund, but he worries taxpayers will not know for sure without an independent review by OPEGA.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.