By Leif Parsell
Rallies in Augusta this week organized by an alliance of Progressive organizations and so-called Patient Advocacy Groups (PAGS) to push back against the Governor’s supplemental Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) budget have raised the specter of a serious conflict of interest. Some in Maine have begun to raise the question: do organizations who receive state money, some of whom are even instrumentalities of the state, have a conflict of interest in lobbying against funding cuts?
A consortium of non-profit liberal advocacy groups, under the banner of the organization Maine Can Do Better (MCDB), has mobilized to oppose the proposed budget cuts. However, many of these organizations have a vested interest in ensuring continued state funding of the programs that provide the bulk of their operational budgets. The staff and services of these organizations rely on the state budget as much as the poor, elderly, and disabled that they serve.
An example of a Maine-based PAG is the Disability Rights Center (DRC), who received 1.6 million dollars in state and federal aid in 2010, out of an operational budget of 1.8 million, to provide legal aid to disabled Mainers. Lobbying and advocacy activity by groups like DRC creates a scenario where a group funded by the taxpayers is utilizing these very funds to ensure the maintenance of these payments, and even to procure more government money.
Another MCDB group that follows this path is Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (PPNNE). PPNNE received more than 3 million dollars in government funds in 2009. This appears to be a model for many of the MCDB affiliates, and like others, PPNNE uses its government funds to provide high-paying positions for its principals – two of its executives make more than $200,000 a year.
Patient Advocacy Groups, whether serving the elderly, disabled, the poor, the unemployed, or a variety of other Maine groups, seem intent on participating in the public policy debate regarding funding for their organizations. However, high salaries, lobbying, the creation of a bureaucratic infrastructure which is self-reinforcing, and millions in government funds raises the question: who are these organizations advocating for?
Carol Weston of the Maine branch of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, is concerned about this dynamic.
“Shouldn’t the general public be made aware that these organizations are rallying in part to protect their own budgets?
I am concerned that these organizations bring their clients to the state house to express moral outrage, while serving the bottom line. It seems a serious conflict of interest to have state-funded patient advocacy groups rallying in Augusta to protect their own budgets.”
Some of the salary information about these groups can be found through the organizations’ IRS Form 990s. Limited to the salaries of CEOs, the information gleaned from the 990s shows that leadership of government-funded non-profit agencies can be a lucrative career path.
Below is a sampling of the CEO salaries for some of the Maine Can Do Better groups:
- Avesta Housing – $128,811 ($11 million in government funding)
- Disability Rights Center – $95,955 ($1.6 million in government funding)
- Family Planning Association – $102,454 ($3.8 million in government funding)
- Preble Street – $88,109 ($2.5 million in government funding)
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England ($3 million in government funding) lists four executives on its 990 form:
- Nancy Mosher – $201,888
- Thomas Frank – $170,213
- Cheryl Gibson – $204,955
- Susan Smith – $150,845
Maine Can Do Better, an organization run by veteran Democrat political operatives Ben Dudley and David Farmer, has been orchestrating a concerted advocacy program to sustain funding for these groups. According to sources, a recent series of conference calls between Farmer and the MCDB groups have been used to consolidate messaging and strategy for opposition to Governor LePage’s DHHS budget. The calls have featured a who’s who of social services executives, lobbyists, and operatives, including Ben Chin from the Maine People’s Alliance, representatives from Maine labor unions, and advocates for Maine’s Head Start program.
Descriptions of theses conference calls paint a picture of a sophisticated political operation, that includes the orchestrated use of children, the poor, and disabled to help sustain a multi-hundred million dollar industry. During the calls, a strategy for the transportation of social services recipients was even discussed, with a Head Start advocate offering to bring as many as 50 participants to the state house for the budget hearings.
The impact of these efforts remains to be seen, as the Appropriations Committee continues to work on the supplemental budget. Hearings will continue on Friday, and a work session is expected early next week.
Calls to Mr. Dudley and Mr. Farmer for comment to be included in this article were not returned.