AUGUSTA (AP) – A newly funded program that will evaluate state government programs to make sure taxpayers get their money’s worth will begin to take shape this week, with hopes it will be in business in early 2004.

On Monday, a panel of legislators and a consultant began a three-day series of meetings in which they will design the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, also known as OPEGA.

“We’re really serious about getting this ball rolling,” House Speaker Patrick Colwell told the small group as it began its work.

Colwell, D-Gardiner, said OPEGA will help the Legislature to achieve accountability and reallocate resources in state government programs. But he also sees it as “a way for us to reassert the power of our Legislative branch.”

OPEGA was authorized by the Legislature in 2002. Even though it was funded in June, efforts to organize it have been hampered by Democratic Senate President Beverly Daggett’s refusal to appoint any senators to the committee that began its work Monday.

Rep. David Trahan, who has pushed for the oversight office from the start, expressed hope Monday that lingering concerns about OPEGA and its functions can be addressed as the Advisory Committee on OPEGA does its work this week.

Some of those concerns involve the scope of OPEGA’s oversight and the funding of the advisory committee itself.

While the final shape of the new oversight agency is not yet known, “we’re not going back to things we’ve tried in the past,” said Rep. Matthew Dunlap, House chairman of the advisory panel.

For years, a joint Legislative committee called Audit and Program Review periodically reviewed the programs in each department and made recommendations on which should be cut or curtailed.

The audit committee was disbanded in 1994 and replaced in 1996 by a process in which state programs evaluate themselves periodically. Critics said departments rushed their reports and were reluctant to expose all of the places where they could be trimmed.

One of the big weapons given to OPEGA is subpoena power, something that may be used rarely if at all, said Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, who attended Monday’s meeting. “It’s a club that tells the people in the bureaucracy they have to give us what we want,” Youngblood said.

Consultant John Turcotte, who until recently was director of Florida’s accountability office and has helped set up similar offices in other states, used an example from Florida to illustrate how Maine’s new office might save money.

In that state, the Legislature decided to give grants to counties to help them set up recycling programs.

with the understanding that the grants would end once the recycling programs got off the ground.

Florida’s accountability office discovered that the grants continued to go out even after the county programs achieved their goal of 30 percent recycling. In effect, startup grants turned into ongoing, operational funding, Turcotte said.

Maine’s OPEGA will analyze the intended functions of state programs and see whether their activities go beyond what was intended by the Legislature, said Dunlap, D-Old Town. Trahan said it will also look for duplication in services.

“Having OPEGA will immediately shake up the bureaucracy,” said the Waldoboro Republican.

Maine joins 44 other states that have programs like OPEGA, according to Dunlap.

AP-ES-11-17-03 1526EST

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