AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage announced Monday that a Maine transportation official with a reputation for getting the most mileage out of scarce dollars is his choice to head that department, and a career administrator who’s run public and private prisons in several other states will be his nominee to head Maine’s corrections system.
David Bernhardt, of Vassalboro, an engineer who has 26 years experience in the department that oversees and maintains Maine’s highway, bridge, ferry and other public transportation systems, will be his nominee for commissioner.
LePage said he wanted to hire a commissioner “who can take a nickel and stretch it into a dollar. The name that kept coming up is David Bernhardt.”
Bernhardt has consolidated transportation maintenance facilities and formed a partnership with New Hampshire to save on purchases such as road culverts, resulting in $10 million in annual savings for Maine, LePage said.
The emphasis on savings comes as the transportation budget falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of what’s needed to keep up with proposed capital improvements for highways and bridges. Asked whether an increase in Maine’s 29.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax plays into a solution to raising more revenue for the department, LePage said, “It doesn’t.”
That policy was seconded by Bernhardt, who said his “first job is to look for efficiencies and cost-effective solutions without having to raise the gas tax.”
LePage’s nominee for Corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, has held administrative positions in corrections systems in Idaho, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Tennessee. Ponte’s resume shows he’s also worked for private firms that run prisons, including Corrections Corporation of America, his employer since 2006.
Ponte said he’s helped to turn around troubled prisons, including a maximum-security state prison in Walpole, Mass., which he said had been one of the most violent on the East Coast, and a county jail in Memphis, Tenn., that experienced staff problems. He is currently running a detention center in Nevada for CCA.
LePage said Ponte’s association with CCA should “absolutely” not be taken as a gesture favoring privatization of Maine’s prison system. However, LePage said he would be open to allowing a private-sector prison come to Maine, build a prison, pay taxes and house other state’s prisoners. “I may consider that,” he said.
“We brought him in because he has public, private, a lot of experience in corrections and he has a good management record. That’s what we’re looking for,” said LePage.
While some county jails Ponte has run had larger capacities than Maine’s whole state corrections system, Ponte acknowledged financial constraints facing the department he would lead. Maine prison system has been tested by chronic overcrowding and budget shortfalls. Under former Gov. John Baldacci, a joint Board of Corrections was created to cut costs by consolidating purchases, coordinating transportation and finding other efficiencies in state and county prisons.
“This will not be easy,” said Ponte, who started out in 1969 as a correctional officer in Massachusetts. But he said his diverse experience in public and private corrections gives him a unique perspective from which he can run Maine’s system.
Maine’s Corrections Department oversees six facilities housing more than 1,800 inmates. The maximum-security Maine State Prison in Warren is the largest, with more than 800 inmates.
Democrats applauded Bernhardt’s nomination but expressed concern over Ponte’s.
Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco said Bernhardt’s selection was “reasonable and responsible.”
But House Minority Emily Cain of Orono said Democrats are “troubled” by Ponte’s nomination and that his experience in private corrections “raises questions.”
“While we were pleased to learn that the governor disavowed any plans to privatize the state’s correction system, we are concerned about his suggestion that the state attract private prisons as part of an economic development strategy, especially because it may pose a conflict for Ponte, who worked at one of the most prominent private prison companies in the country,” Cain said in a statement.
The Corrections Department is currently headed by Martin Magnusson, who was appointed commissioner by independent Gov. Angus King in 1998 and served under Baldacci. The current transportation commissioner is David Cole, who was appointed by Baldacci.
Bernhardt and Ponte face legislative confirmation votes.