As state officials work through the budget process, one thing has become abundantly clear — Maine has a government it can no longer afford.

This leaves us three options: increase taxes, cut programs or figure out a way to make our existing programs more efficient.

Tax increases are not an option — Mainers already suffer under one of the highest tax burdens in the nation.

In order to reduce the severity of the inevitable cuts, we must look closer at the efficiency of our programs and try to make sure we are making the most of every tax dollar we spend.

We’ve started this process by opening the lid on the Maine Turnpike Authority, Maine Green Energy Alliance and the Department of Health and Human Services, and so far it seems we’ve got our work cut out for us.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is reviewing the practices of the Maine Turnpike Authority, and what it has discovered so far is alarming.

The committee has learned that the MTA has been donating tens of thousands of dollars to various organizations in an effort to build its public profile, and it has spent more than $157,000 in gift certificates to luxury hotel chains.

MTA officials informed the committee that they are unable to account for the gift certificate spending, prompting the resignation of MTA Executive Director Paul Violette after 23 years on the job.

Violette was replaced by Peter Mills, a longtime Republican senator, and the new leadership already has started to make big changes. Mills has ended the policy of using paid lobbyists, a measure that will save tens of thousands of dollars each year, and also canceled this year’s turnpike banquet, saving another $19,000.

Many questions still loom about the MTA’s use of public funds, but the work done so far by both Mills and the Government Oversight Committee has forced a distinct change in operating practices that will save Mainers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the years ahead.

The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee also has been working hard to safeguard taxpayer funds. Its review of the Maine Green Energy Alliance, an endeavor funded by a $1.1 million federal grant administered through Efficiency Maine, has revealed a disturbing lack of productivity, as well as a questionable pattern of spending.

The MGEA was contracted to perform 1,000 energy audits on Maine homes, but completed only 50, while burning through hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Committee review also revealed that the MGEA spent much of its funding on Democrat legislators and candidates, and that Democratic Party voter lists were used as part of its efforts. Documents gathered at the committee’s request showed MGEA officials used Democratic Party headquarters as a meeting place.

The committee continues to review why this taxpayer-funded program was so closely affiliated with a political party, and why it failed in its mission but managed nevertheless to provide good-paying jobs with rich benefits for well-placed Democrats.

The issue of spending by quasi-state ventures such as the Maine Turnpike Authority and Maine Green Energy Alliance is something we intend to dig deeper into in the coming months.

Maine spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars funding programs that have fallen into a gray area of accountability, and these initial investigations show clearly that the Legislature needs to provide more oversight to any program that receives taxpayer funding.

Legislative committees are not the only ones digging into the efficiency of Maine’s government programs.

Mary Mayhew, the new commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, has been working to untangle the mess created in that department over the last several decades.

Mayhew already has uncovered a number of significant operational problems, including tens of millions of dollars in overpayments to hospitals that were not properly accounted for in the transition between administrations.

Mayhew also reported that DHHS had lost a court battle with the federal government over errors in classification of foster care cases, leaving Maine taxpayers on the hook for nearly $30 million.

The bad news continues to flow out of DHHS, but under Mayhew’s leadership, these problems finally are being addressed.

All of us in Augusta struggle to find the right balance between spending on government programs and reducing the tax burden on Maine citizens. Our economic situation will force us to make some difficult decisions in the coming months, and that makes it even more important that we make the most out of the revenue we already take in. This Legislature takes seriously its role as stewards of citizens’ tax dollars, and we are determined to deliver a more efficient, less expensive government to the people of Maine.

Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, is speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. He is serving his sixth term in the House.

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