AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are proposing structural reforms to the Maine Turnpike Authority to ensure more legislative oversight and require the authority to spend more of its toll revenue on state highway projects.

The proposals are, in part, a response to recommendations by the Legislature’s accountability office, which issued a report on the turnpike authority in January after an eight-month review.

The review, which uncovered lavish spending for travel and nearly $200,000 for gift cards that couldn’t be accounted for, led to the resignation of the authority’s longtime director, Paul Violette, in March.

Legislative leaders have compiled all of the proposed changes into one bill, L.D. 1538, which was made public Tuesday. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on the bill at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, a co-chair of the Transportation Committee, calls it the “turnpike authority restart bill.” It has 50 co-sponsors.

The bill proposes several changes to state laws that govern the MTA, a quasi-governmental agency. The authority has already made some of the changes under the direction of its interim executive director, Peter Mills.

The bill would:

Require that the MTA’s executive director be confirmed by the Senate. Currently, the authority’s board of directors has sole authority over hiring the director.

Allow members of the board of directors to be removed for gross misconduct, including financial malfeasance.

Require the authority to submit detailed budgets of all spending, including expenditures from its reserve maintenance fund. That fund has been used to hide spending for travel and gift cards, say lawmakers who have been critical of the MTA. Turnpike officials haven’t allowed lawmakers to see line-item expenditures from that fund.

The authority spent about $200,000 on gift cards for high-end hotels and restaurants in North America and Europe from 2004 to 2010, but only $15,000 worth of cards can be accounted for, according to the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Require the MTA to transfer 5 percent of its annual operating revenue to the Maine Department of Transportation. The authority collects about $114 million a year, mostly from tolls. The money given to the MDOT could be spent only for projects within 25 miles of turnpike interchanges.

Require the authority to maintain a system for ongoing internal audits.

Require that most contracts and services be awarded through competitive bidding.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, a co-sponsor of the bill, said state law now requires the MTA to give surplus revenue to the MDOT, but the authority has structured its budget to make sure it never has a surplus.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel spending cited in the accountability office report shows that the MTA had money to spare, she said.

Mills, who helped lawmakers draft the bill, said he agrees with most of the proposals. But he sees the requirement to give 5 percent of the operating revenue to the Department of Transportation as problematic.

He said that over the years, the authority has developed a partnership with the MDOT on projects of mutual interest.

For example, he said, the turnpike authority has agreed to spend $81 million over 27 years to help fund repairs of two bridges across the Piscataqua River between Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H.

“How do you write in statute a partnership we already have?” Mills asked.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

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