Did Maine Mistakenly Defund its Office of Geographic Information Systems?

Gov. Paul LePage and state lawmakers disagree on whether the new budget funds the state data agency.

by Christopher Cousins, Bangor Daily News, Maine / August 4, 2017
Maine Gov. Paul LePage attempted in his biennial budget proposal to have the agency absorbed into a new Department of Information Technology. But when that proposal was rejected, the funding source was not corrected. Gage Skidmore

(TNS) — Gov. Paul LePage and his finance department said Wednesday that a state agency has been defunded due to a budget mistake, though Senate President Mike Thibodeau said it’s not clear any mistake was made and that the agency can survive under existing resources.

The Maine Office of Geographic Information Systems and the Library of Geographic Information are responsible for mapping activities that support a range of state services and web portals. LePage attempted in his biennial budget proposal to have the agency absorbed into a new Department of Information Technology, but the Legislature rejected that proposal.

Part of the change would have moved the agency’s funding source from an account that collects service fees paid to state agencies to the General Fund, which supports the majority of government operations. When LePage’s proposal was rejected, the funding source was not corrected, according to David Heidrich Jr., spokesman for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

In an email to an analyst for House Speaker Sara Gideon, Heidrich wrote that to accommodate LePage’s proposal, state departments removed their contributions to GIS from their budget requests.

“The problem lies in the fact that the budget did not then include the previously eliminated one for the agencies to pay for GIS services,” wrote Heidrich. “Since the budget passed, GIS has been operating on funds that were carried forward from the previous fiscal year.”

Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, declined to comment but Thibodeau, a Republican from Winterport, said “we continue to research this issue.”

“While it’s unclear that there is a shortfall, the administration certainly has the authority to fund this program within existing resources through January 2018,” said Thibodeau in a written statement to the Bangor Daily News. “If any clarifying language is appropriate, it could be addressed in a supplemental budget.”

LePage referenced the issue Thursday morning a radio interview on WGAN.

“I just found out this morning that they made a mistake,” said LePage of the Legislature. “When they crafted the budget, they left out OIT. So, if they don’t come back and fix it, we’re going to be shutting down.”

“OIT” apparently referred to LePage’s rejected proposal for the new information technology department.

Jon Giles, chairman of the Maine Library of Geographic Information, expressed a similar concern in a July 28 mass email to interested parties and asked them to contact their legislators.

“What does this mean?” he wrote. “Simply that many of the GIS services, data acquisition projects and data catalog resources we have all come to use and rely upon may not be there in the very near future.”

The conflict again highlights the sparring that has gone on between LePage, Democrats and Senate Republicans over budget priorities and the roles that the legislative and executive branches should play in governing Maine.

The Republican governor has frequently criticized lawmakers for not reading the fine print of proposed legislation, including the budget bill. He’s regularly belittled Thibodeau for failing to support his conservative agenda and being too willing to compromise in the name of legislative process.

Conversely, Thibodeau has opposed some of LePage’s interpretations of executive authority — most notably at the end of the 2015 legislative session, when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously sided with the Senate president and others who argued that LePage had incorrectly interpreted state law as it relates to the timeline to issue vetoes.

This latest failure to communicate has left funding for critical state data collection and management services in limbo.

©2017 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.