AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday to launch a preliminary inquiry into Maine PowerOptions (MPO), a little-known quasi-state program that brings together hundreds of municipalities and school districts to help them buy electricity.
The lawmakers’ call for an investigation follows a story last month by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that found virtually no proof that up to $500 million in taxpayer money that the program has directed to a single electricity supplier over the past 16 years has been well spent.
The inquiry will be conducted by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), the legislature’s investigative arm. Maine PowerOptions, which is operated as a program of the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, has received no legislative scrutiny since its inception in 1999.
Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, who requested the inquiry, said his goal is to shed light on a program that he believes to be well-meaning, but that lacks transparency in its decision making.
“They don’t go along with our usual pattern of state agencies,” Gratwick said. “I want to know what your books are, how your money is being spent.”
“There are no meeting minutes, summaries. I’m sure things are on the up and up, but it’s just not clear,” he said.
The Center’s investigation, which supports the findings of a confidential 2013 probe conducted by the state Office of Policy and Management, revealed that a single company, Constellation and its corporate predecessors, had won every bid to be the program’s energy supplier since its inception.
Despite Constellation’s winning streak, MPO had kept few public records of its meetings or decisions made during the bidding process. Although each MPO member contracts directly with the electricity supplier, the program, which influences the spending of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars annually, runs the bidding process and negotiates the fine print of the agreement each member signs.
OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft said both the Center’s story and the 2013 probe had identified significant questions about MPO’s operations.
“Concerns were raised about whether there actually are any savings being realized by participants in the program, and whether MPO was keeping proper records,” Ashcroft said.
Legislators on the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology earlier this month raised similar concerns about the consortium’s lack of transparency.
Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, a member of both committees, said Friday that a study would answer lingering questions about whether the consortium was saving municipalities and other members money on their electricity bills.
“I did ask on the record if they could present any evidence of cost-savings, and they said ‘no,’” Rykerson said.
Michael Goodwin, the executive director of the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, which oversees the program, said he welcomed lawmakers’ interest.
“I think that we’ll get our information out there shortly,” he said after Friday’s vote.
Dave Sherwood is a staff reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, non-profit investigative news service based in Augusta. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org.