A watchdog of the labyrinth

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  April 2, 2008

It costs Maine legislators almost a million bucks a year to hire somebody to embarrass them.

If they decide to privatize the job, I’ll do it for half that.

To demonstrate my embarrassing expertise, here’s a free sample: Back in 2006, Democratic state Senator Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro had nothing but praise for the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) and its mandate to seek out inefficiency in state government. “It is the only arm the Legislature has,” she told the Kennebec Journal, “to give us an independent view of agencies.” In 2008, Mitchell, the Senate majority leader, is one of the leaders — along with Assistant Majority Leader John Martin, the state senator from Eagle Lake — of an effort to abolish OPEGA.

Actually, that’s not such a good example of my skills as an embarrasser. That’s because Mitchell and Martin are right.

In almost 17 years of producing this column, I never dreamed I’d write those words.

For a million dollars a year, OPEGA is an abundant source of reports that disconcert legislators and upset bureaucrats. But when it comes to saving money, it’s pretty much worthless.

And saving money is what OPEGA is supposed to do. In an op-ed written in 2001 during debate over creating the agency, then-Republican state Representative David Trahan of Waldoboro said, “I can only imagine how much money would be freed [by OPEGA] for better use, for schools, health care or tax relief.”

The operative word there is “imagine.”

Since OPEGA began its work in 2005, it’s uncovered waste, fraud, incompetence, and abuse totaling, hmmm ... about $168,000. (It’s also suggested ways of saving another $2 million, ways that will probably never be implemented for reasons I’ll explain later.) During the same period, the agency cost taxpayers, let’s see ... about $3 million.

Admittedly, you can’t put a dollar value on the embarrassment it’s caused. Like the report OPEGA issued that showed that between 2003 and 2005, the state spent over $600 million on economic development programs without bothering to figure out if most of that cash had actually created or preserved any jobs. OPEGA suggested ways to evaluate that spending to see if it was working, but those methods were rejected by the administration of Democratic Governor John Baldacci as too expensive.

Nevertheless, the Legislature booked $5 million in savings in the current supplemental budget from the mishmash of tax breaks, grants, and handouts the state offers to businesses, without requiring the administration to figure out where those reductions could best be made to improve results. If OPEGA wants credit for that bit of political prestidigitation, it can have it.

The real reason Republicans pushed hard to create OPEGA — and, as I write this, are still battling to preserve it — is not because it might save more money than it costs. Given the Legislature’s long history with oversight agencies, the GOP knows that’s unlikely to happen.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, U.S. Congressional News,  More more >
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