In defense of the OFPR

There seem to be no limits to political attacks. Even the famous put-down of Sen. Joseph McCarthy by the chief counsel for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, sounds quaint by today’s standards. “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” cried Welch during the Senate hearing. Decency? What’s that?

Gov. Paul LePage criticized the legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR) as “a Democratic-run state office” and, according to a news report, said the OFPR had misstated the numbers. Misstated the numbers? The OFPR? Oh, no, no, no, no. No.

In the last seven years, it is conceivable that the OFPR might have had grounds to comment on the accuracy of numbers used by the governor to support his political positions, but true to its code of professionalism, the office has remained silent. Nor did it publicly defend itself against the governor’s accusation last week. But someone should.

The legislative branch includes a suite of offices that support the work of the legislature. The executive director’s office is the “administrative and management agency” for the legislature. The Office of the Revisor of Statutes is responsible for drafting bills. The Legislative Information Office provides an interface between the legislature and the public regarding the legislative process, schedules and bill status. There is a Law and Legislative Reference Library and an Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability.

The two offices that directly staff legislative policy committees are the OFPR and the OPLA (Office of Policy and Legal Analysis). The OFPR primarily staffs the Appropriations and Taxation committees; The OPLA staffs all the other standing committees and joint select committees. Without these resources, legislators would be sunk.

Maine’s is a “citizen legislature” whose members come from the usual Maine walks of life. They may be educators, farmers, nurses, lawyers, business owners, law enforcement officers, realtors, retirees, loggers, doctors or carpenters. When committee assignments are made at the beginning of a legislative session, leadership attempts to match the skills of legislators to the policy areas of committees.

However, every 13-member policy committee inevitably will have members who are entirely new to the subject. In addition to the invaluable information gained at committee hearings, diligent committee members will seek to educate themselves about their policy areas. This effort is aided enormously by OFPR and OPLA staff.

These offices provide background information on the bills before the committees, including existing law and previous attempts to revise it. They research similar legislation in other states and summarize results there. They crunch numbers and develop an official “fiscal note” for each bill.

To accomplish all this, they work like demons in between twice or thrice-weekly committee meetings. They spend countless hours at their desks, trying both to get it fast and to get it right, and it is vanishingly rare that they don’t get it right. In a state house full of lobbyists trying to persuade legislators to a particular point of view, a legislator can rely on the work of these offices with confidence for accurate and nonpartisan information.

So it is quite inappropriate, not to mention inaccurate, to say they are lackeys of a political party. And since the “boss” of the committees is the Legislative Council, currently split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, they couldn’t be partisan if they wanted to. And they don’t want to.

Many a novice legislator, particularly since term limits were instituted and freshman legislators have begun serving as committee chairs, has had his or her bacon saved by committee staff from the OFPR or the OPLA. These staffers will walk a willing chairman through the intricacies of both the committee process and the policy implications with exquisite patience. They are smart and unfailingly calm, careful, dispassionate, thorough and courteous.

To call them the tool of a political party is to reflect a deep misunderstanding of their function and performance, year after year after year. It would be like calling a universally respected legislator, a sweet, smart and likable fellow like Ellsworth’s Louie Luchini, an asinine, juvenile nickname like “screwy Louie” and then distributing it in print. Could you be that dumb?

There isn’t much dignity or honor in public service anymore. Nothing is sacred, no subject is too low for “oppo” — opposition research done on behalf of a candidate or a cause. It’s all about winning at any cost. How discouraging it is for staffers or legislators themselves to give it their all, only to be plagued by false allegations of partisanship or otherwise insulted or maligned.

The reward we will reap for the discord we are sowing is that fewer and fewer men and women of talent and dedication will run for office. We will be left with those with a magnified impression of their own value or those who are willing to warm a seat and follow the partisan directions of leadership.

Picking on the good guys gets us nowhere. The legislative offices are loaded with talent, making it possible for a citizen legislature to take on policy debates with the information they need to make good decisions. Undermining the OFPR’s integrity only deepens the partisan divide.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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