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Governor LePage Proposal to Abolish State Planning Office Sparks Fight
03/27/2012   Reported By: Mal Leary

Gov. Paul LePage is proposing that the State Planning Office be abolished, and its functions assumed by other state agencies. He wants some of the department's resources to go to a new Office of Policy and Management but the initiative is drawing concerns from both parties.

The first red flags went up in the Appropriations Committee when the complex legislation that abolishes the Planning Office was first described. Both Senator Roger Katz (R-Augusta) and Representative Ken Fredette (R-Newport) strongly objected to the subpoena language in the bill that would have allowed the director of the new Office of Policy and Management to issue subpoenas to virtually anybody as part of their research and investigation capabilities. The Appropriations Committee sent those legal issues on to the Judiciary Committee, which is recommending significant changes.

“It takes away the ability of the new agency to invade private entities and towns, and so that's great, I like it and it looks good," said Senator Cynthia Dill (D-Cape Elizabeth). "However I'm not in favor of the over arching policy.”

Dill said she does support the subpoena language change.

Representative Brad Moulton (R-York) serves on both the Judiciary Committee and the State & Local Government. He takes issue with the entire proposal, which was evident in an exchange with Senator David Hastings (R-Fryeburg), he also chairs of the Judiciary Committee.

Hastings: "You're really in opposition to the policy of creating this organizaton." Moulton: "If I could add to it Mr. Chairman, I am in opposition to the grant of a subpeona power. So I think that should cover my position with respect to this committee.”

But Hastings and others on the committee take comfort from the fact that a judge would have to approve any subpoena before it is issued.

"I'm given quite a bit of comfort by the fact that we got a superior court judge standing between the agency and a subpoena," Hastings said. "And the fact that there has been no subpoena issued in the last 30 years by the State Planning Office give me some comfort as well...that we may be the only time that this will ever be discussed as well.”

But there are others issues being raised by lawmakers in both parties. some oppose the way the State Planning Office duties have been redistributied...such as the proposal to move flood plain mapping to the Maine Emergency Management Agency. Some lawmakers say they don't like the plan for the creation of the new agency. Rep. Peggy Rotundo (D-Lewiston) questioned Deputy Finance Commissioner David Emery.

Rotundo: “And it feels different from the State Planning Office as it has existed, which seemed to be more technical in nature and less partisan." Emery: "Well, just a comment on that concern, it is not our intent to make it partisan or less transparent.”

But some raise concerns about the stated goals of the new Policy and Management office to assess state agencies and find ways to reduce costs. They point to the legislative Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability as an existing non-partisan agency that is already charged with that task. Commissioner Emery said the new Office of Policy and Management will not be partisan.

“Our focus is not a partisan goal," Emery said. "We have our own philosophical views, I'm sure, that maybe different than some in the past and may drive the direction that this goes, but we are driven by the sincere interest to improve government and make functions more efficient.”

The Appropriations Committee has not scheduled further committee discussions on the proposal, which is part of the Governor's budget. Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett is scheduled to present changes to the budget proposal Friday afternoon.

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