October 22, 2012

Maine universities' role as research arm for state erodes

A LePage order to put the work out for bid to save money causes layoffs and the schools lose millions.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A change in the way the state issues contracts for intellectual services, such as research and training, is causing officials at the University of Southern Maine to conclude that the state's long-term partnership with its public university system has ended.

click image to enlarge

USM's Wishcamper Center in Portland houses the Muskie School of Public Service.

Jack Milton / Staff Photographer

The partnership, which dates back to 1989 and the administration of Republican Gov. John McKernan, began to fray last December when Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order mandating that all so-called cooperative agreements with state universities go out to bid unless a waiver is approved by the Governor's Office.

In his order, LePage said that "full and fair bidding has the potential to both reduce costs and increase quality" and that he has the responsibility to ensure that such waivers are "utilized only to the extent necessary to protect the interests of Maine people."

The change is causing Maine's public universities to lose millions of dollars and lay off dozens of employees. USM -- and particularly its Muskie School of Public Service -- has been hit hardest because it does more work for the state than any other institution.

The bigger issue, though, is that the university system is losing its role as the research arm for state agencies, said Andrew Coburn, professor of public health at the Muskie School.

"The loss of the relationship is what's important here, not the dollars shifting," he said.

LePage believes the change is necessary because it will assure taxpayers that their money is being well-spent, said his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

"It's about having a competitive bidding process that will demonstrate if the state is receiving the best value," she said.

In late August, USM lost its largest contract, a $3.8 million agreement to provide nutritional education for people who receive food stamps. The University of New England, a private institution in Biddeford, won the bid.

In addition, the state Department of Health and Human Services has canceled a $1.9 million cooperative agreement with the Muskie School to train child-welfare workers. The work, which the Muskie School has conducted for a decade, will be done by the department in-house.

USM retained seven continuing agreements that were put out to bid, and the university has been given one-year waivers for three continuing agreements. The state put two other continuing agreements out to bid and has yet to make a decision on them.

1989 LAW SERVES A DUAL PURPOSE

In 1989, the Legislature passed a law that allowed state agencies to enter into "cooperative agreements" with the state's universities for research, analysis and training work, without having to put the contracts out for bid. These agreements are reviewed and renegotiated annually.

By law, the projects must serve a dual purpose: assist the state agency and enhance the university system's traditional mission of teaching, research and public service.

University officials say that the stability provided by the partnership with the state has helped the universities attract and retain Ph.D.s and graduate students, and qualify for federal grants that bring millions of dollars to the universities and the state.

The projects at the Muskie School include $26,000 to study how to improve the way Medicaid patients get treatment with anti-psychotic medication, $105,000 to examine the impact that diabetes has on mental health and $335,000 to evaluate the state's home-visiting program for low-income mothers with newborns.

The arrangement in many cases has helped both state agencies and the Muskie School secure federal funds and foundation money to support programs that meet state goals, Coburn said. Because the university system is a state entity, its money can be counted as a state match on federal projects that require state contributions, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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