Despite initial rejection, bill to create shelter for Maine homeless veterans could get second chance
AUGUSTA, Maine — Citing “inside baseball” and political gamesmanship, state Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said he would appeal the rejection of a bill that paves the way to create a shelter for some of the state’s homeless veterans.
Wilson’s bill was rejected by the Legislative Council, a committee of Democratic and Republican leaders, earlier this month.
That committee is tasked with setting the agenda and selecting the bills lawmakers will consider when the Legislature reconvenes for the second half of the 126th legislative session, which starts in January.
Wilson, a Marine Corps veteran, wants the state to sell four abandoned buildings that once housed doctors on the Augusta Mental Health Institute campus to a nonprofit group that serves the homeless and veterans.
The buildings are slated for demolition, but at least one could be occupied with relatively few repairs, Wilson said.
Under his proposal, the buildings would be sold for fair market value to the Bread of Life Ministry to provide shelter to homeless veterans.
The buildings, once renovated, could house as many as 20 people. Wilson’s bill was among more than 300 that were eliminated by the Legislative Council for not meeting the strict initial criteria of being an emergency or time-sensitive in nature.
“These buildings could be demolished at any time, so this is clearly an emergency,” Wilson said in a written statement this week. “Furthermore, every day that a veteran lives on the streets is an emergency. Maine has one of the largest veteran populations per capita, and it’s imperative that we take care of them.”
Wilson can appeal the council’s decision Nov. 21 when it meets to reconsider 101 of the bills it rejected earlier in the month.
Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Administration and Financial Services, said the buildings are slated for demolition, but, she noted, the state doesn’t have the funding to either demolish or properly maintain them.
Smith said Wilson’s bill would bring revenue while putting them to good use, and the longer the state waits to do something with the properties, the more dilapidated and less valuable they will become.
“They are worth less and less, and their ability to be reused is also reduced or at a minimum as it gets much more expensive to renovate them,” Smith said.
Wilson said he’s frustrated the bill wasn’t approved when it first came up. He suggested it was rejected to deny him success during the upcoming session, because he will likely face a Democratic challenger in the 2014 legislative elections.
“The games and the inside baseball too often trump good policy and, in this case, veterans in need pay the price,” Wilson said.
Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond, said Wilson’s bills and others that will be heard on appeal still have a chance.
Dodge said the process the Legislative Council follows is the same one it has used for decades, and bills like Wilson’s will get at least one more chance to be heard.
She said the initial rejection of the bill, along with others that have generated outrage and news stories, is nothing new, and the vitriol from angry lawmakers like Wilson has been a source of “frustration.”
Dodge said Republican leaders on the Legislative Council also know lawmakers have a chance to appeal and if that fails, they could get Gov. Paul LePage to offer the bills for consideration.
The bills coming from the governor’s office won’t have to be cleared first through the Legislative Council, Dodge said. “The governor’s bills just automatically go forward.”
Which bills LePage and his administration might bring forward in 2014 was not immediately clear and a call to his press secretary was not returned Friday.
Besides Wilson’s bill, several others could be routed through LePage’s office, including a welfare-reform bill offered by Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
Fredette, the House minority leader, also expressed outrage that his measure, which would have required those signing up for welfare benefits to show they were looking for work, was rejected by the council.
Another bill rejected by the council that has captured the attention of the media is one offered by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. Volk’s bill would allow courts to vacate prostitution convictions for victims of human trafficking. Volk will appeal the council’s decision on Nov. 21, she said.
Dodge said it’s frustrating because the process allows lawmakers another chance to show their bills are time-sensitive or to address emergency situations.
“It is just not ‘game over,’” Dodge said Friday. “There is a whole other round. At the end of the day on the 21st, if we kill the bills, we will take the criticism. But until then, the bills are not dead.”
David Sorensen, a spokesman for House Republicans, said his party didn’t look at the law-making process as a game.
“This is a serious process that requires prioritization and bipartisanship,” Sorensen said. “Many have speculated that some of these bills were killed for political reasons. We hope that is not the case; that’s not the way it should be.”
Sorensen said problems as serious as homeless veterans and human trafficking warrant a team approach.
“We should get the problems solved, regardless of who brings the solution forward,” he said. He said Republicans wanted a fair and consistent process and not one that favored one party’s bills over another.
Dodge said there was no effort to play politics in the bill-selection process and that Democrats also had bills they considered “good” rejected by the Legislative Council.
She said Democrats were equally committed to helping the homeless, veterans and in protecting the rights of women.
“The process really isn’t as politicized as some people would make it out to be,” she said.