AUGUSTA (AP) – An agency that will evaluate public agencies to make sure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth began taking shape Thursday, ending a process marked by partisan squabbling and delays.

A panel of House and Senate members from both parties held its first meeting to organize the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability – OPEGA for short – with hopes it will be in business by early 2005.

“This has been a long, very tedious process to get this important program to where it is today,” said state Rep. David Trahan, an early advocate of OPEGA and member of the oversight committee.

“I know that I would like to wipe the slate clean on some of the controversy” leading up to OPEGA’s formation, added Trahan, R-Waldoboro.

OPEGA was authorized by the Legislature in 2002, but its funding was later eliminated amid a state budget crisis. It was funded last year, but a delay in making Senate appointments to its oversight panel set the program back again.

Members of the joint committee that began refining the new office’s mission on Thursday indicated a willingness to forget past tensions and focus on the job ahead.

“It is an opportunity for us to ensure that the citizens of Maine are getting the best bang for their buck,” said Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton.

The law creating OPEGA authorizes it to evaluate state agencies and programs, local and county governments, utility districts, regional development agencies, municipal and nonprofit corporations.

The new agency will also ensure that public funds provided to local and county governments and other entities are used for their intended purposes.

Its oversight committee may make recommendations resulting from evaluations to the Legislature, which would have the final word on whether a program is eliminated or changed in any other way.

Committee members hope to have an executive director for OPEGA in time to have the agency running by early next year.

The oversight committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Matthew Dunlap, expressed hope lawmakers will approach OPEGA “without preconceived notions or agendas.”

The Old Town Democrat also said the agency may be more effective if it does not try to immediately examine whole departments of state government, but review individual programs that may not have been scrutinized for years.

“The Legislature creates new commissions and agencies every session, but it rarely goes back to see how effective they are,” said Dunlap.

Until a decade ago, the Legislature’s Audit and Program Review Committee periodically reviewed programs in each department and made recommendations on which should be cut or curtailed.

After it was disbanded, the committee was replaced in 1996 by a process in which state programs evaluate themselves periodically. Critics said departments rushed their reports and did not always point out where budgets could be trimmed.

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