By Rep. Rich Cebra
When Republicans captured control of the Maine House and Senate in 2010 for the first time in decades, we got to work quickly. The governor and legislature confronted major problems that had long been ignored or swept under the rug by the Democrats, and the people of Maine were paying the price—big time.
The GOP agenda, which had always been squashed by the ruling Democrats, finally could be enacted.
During last year’s first session, we rolled out an ambitious slate of bills to rescue the state from crushing health insurance rates, a public pension system that had billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities and a costly welfare system that trapped hundreds of thousands of Maine residents in poverty.
We also hacked through a regulatory jungle that was strangling Maine businesses, killing job creation and eroding our economic wellbeing. Forbes magazine, you may recall, rated Maine’s business climate as the worst in the nation. And with regard to our high taxation, we put through the largest tax cut in state history: more than $150 million.
All these initiative are now bearing fruit. Insurance rates are moderating or falling. Pension reforms will save Maine taxpayers more than $3 billion by 2028, when the unfunded debt must be fully paid off. Welfare recipients in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program will be limited to five years of benefits, bringing us in line with federal law.
The smothering regulatory blanket is being lifted, without compromising our commitment to a clean environment. And tax reform, once it fully kicks in, will benefit taxpayers at all levels and eliminate income tax liability for some 70,000 low- and middle-income Mainers.
But even as these achievements were taking shape, we began to discover that some unsavory and even criminal activities were taking place at various agencies that had been dominated by Democrats for years.
You may have heard of OPEGA, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. This seven-person “watchdog” agency was created by Republicans in 2005 as an independent investigatory arm of the Legislature. It is directed by the Government Oversight Committee.
The Democrats tried repeatedly to kill it in its infancy by refusing to fund it adequately, but OPEGA survived the attacks. When Republicans came to power, we set this plucky little investigative team to work on the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA).
Rumors had swirled around the State House for years that the MTA had become a “rogue” agency, but nothing was done. It was run by former Democratic senator Paul Violette, and his fellow Democrats had zero interest in exposing malfeasance.
OPEGA’s report was devastating, and Violette now stands convicted of felony theft and faces up to five years in prison. MTA, it turned out, spent $257,000 over four years on banquets, cookouts and service awards. Other state employees, meanwhile, were enduring salary freezes and furlough days. The MTA also spent $297,000 on donations and sponsorships of various organizations, some of which were non-charitable groups with no linkage to MTA’s mission.
Most notoriously, Violette spent $157,000 on gift cards for hotels and restaurants. He expensed them as work-related travel costs, but instead pocketed them for personal use. Overall, the MTA under Violette spent $1.1 million from 2005 to 2009 on travel and meals. There were no internal policies to govern the practice of charging the state for such expenses.
Additionally, the MTA spent $577,000 on lobbying services from private firms to expand its clout in the State House, even though the agency had three top executives making between $126,000 and $189,000 who could have represented the MTA before the Legislature.
Next, OPEGA set its sights on the Maine Green Energy Alliance (MGEA), another nest of Democratic malfeasance, shabby financial controls, poor record keeping and dubious time reporting by employees.
For one thing, OPEGA found that it was improper for the Efficiency Maine Trust and the Public Utilities Commission to have distributed $3 million in federal grant money to MGEA, when it had no ability to adequately administer those funds. After receiving the first $1.25 million of the grant, MGEA had completed only 5 percent of the energy audits required by the terms of the grant. The agency’s overall performance was such a shambles that it was shut down.
Now comes an OPEGA investigation of the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA), which has the makings of a blockbuster scandal. With some 6,500 Maine families on a waiting list for affordable housing, it has been discovered that MSHA has squandered untold sums on “social justice” groups, DJs, massage therapists, magicians and luxury hotels in Orlando, Las Vegas, Miami Beach, New Orleans, Washington, D.C and other cities.
The MSHA’s director is Dale McCormick, a former Democratic state senator. Is it just coincidental that another recipient of MSHA dollars is Moose Ridge Associates, a political consulting company founded and run by McCormick’s former partner, Betsy Sweet? MSHA also has been generous in donations to left-wing political activists groups.
Is it any wonder that Democratic legislators tried to strangle OPEGA in the cradle? And can there be any doubt that, without Republicans in charge, none of these outrages would ever have been exposed?