Portland Press Herald: Rules aim to tame Maine Turnpike spending
Legislators consider regular auditing, and some call for fresh faces on the authority’s board
By Susan M. Cover
MaineToday Media State House Writer
AUGUSTA — The interim director of the Maine Turnpike Authority endorsed more stringent standards for the agency Tuesday, recommending to lawmakers that an auditor come in four times a year to ensure that all policies are being followed.
Peter Mills, a former Republican state senator who has led the authority since the resignation of Executive Director Paul Violette in March, told lawmakers that controls are needed. Violette resigned after 23 years on the job amid questions about lavish — and undocumented — spending on travel and gift cards.
“We’ve been thinking deeply about (this). How do you create a system to preclude those things from happening again after many of us are gone?” Mills told members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
The committee held a public hearing on L.D. 1538. The bill proposes several changes to give the Legislature better oversight of the quasi-governmental authority, which operates the toll highway from Kittery to Augusta and collects close to $100 million a year in tolls.
Sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, the bill drew wide support and is scheduled for committee work sessions Thursday and Friday.
“I call it the turnpike reset bill,” Cebra said.
During testimony, two lawmakers who have been keys to bringing about the suggested reforms kept the pressure on the turnpike authority’s board members, saying some of them should resign or be removed.
“I think they let us down in their fiduciary responsibilities,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “I question whether they should remain in those positions.”
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, whom Katz credited with bringing turnpike authority issues to the fore, said it’s time for some board members to move on.
“I make no judgments on individuals, but I do hope you consider asking some of them to retire to bring in some new blood,” she said.
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has recommended that board members’ terms be reduced from seven years to four or five.
Katz outlined some of the problems that were uncovered in a report released in January by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
“The executive director oversaw a culture of grossly excessive spending that has ended up shocking most Mainers,” he said. “Stays in extravagant hotels, meals costing thousands of dollars and other examples of simply wasting public funds are the legacy of his tenure. His own actions are now the subject of a criminal investigation by the attorney general.”
As proposed, the bill would:
• Require the authority to give Maine’s Department of Transportation 5 percent of its operating revenue each year, minus funds it spends on bonds issued to benefit the department and projects funded jointly with the department. The money could be used only on projects within 25 miles of turnpike interchanges.
• Require ongoing internal auditing of the authority’s books. Mills suggested that the authority go a step further and require the board to hire an outside auditor, who would report directly to the board, not the executive director.
• Change the authority’s fiscal year, which now is a calendar year, to coincide with the state’s fiscal year, which runs July 1 through June 30. Mills said that may be a difficult change; it is likely to be reconsidered by the committee.
• Require the authority to present a detailed budget of expenditures to the Legislature.
• Require contracts for goods and services to be awarded through competitive bidding.
• Require the authority to adopt a fair process for working with engineering firms.
• Allow the authority to establish reciprocal agreements with other toll collecting authorities to help recover uncollected tolls. Maine loses about $500,000 a year from drivers who don’t pay tolls, Mills said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org