AUGUSTA, Maine — There was no question Wednesday that members of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety felt that the state’s forest rangers should be allowed to carry guns.
But the bill designed to do just that bogged down nonetheless, as legislators sought to clarify exactly who would pay for the weapons and training, and where that money would come from.
Work on the bill was tabled, citing concerns that the committee itself would have no standing to fund the implementation of any plan it endorsed.
Before the bill moves forward, the two committee chairmen will meet with the chairmen of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee — which oversees the state department that includes the Maine Forest Service — in order to iron out funding questions.
“This is going to impact another committee much more than it will impact us,” said state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick. “We got [this bill] because it says ‘guns.’ Because it’s arming people.”
Not bringing chairs of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee on board at this point would lead to problems down the road, several legislators said.
Gerzofsky hopes a meeting can be set up soon and that his committee can move forward with the bill before a mid-January deadline.
The bill — HR 297 — seeks to train and provide firearms to Maine’s forest rangers. Rangers are law enforcement officers who are tasked with enforcing forest conservation laws. In addition, the rangers are the frontline group tasked with battling forest fires in the state.
Rangers carry pepper spray and handcuffs, but not firearms.
In the spring, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee approved an ought-to-pass recommendation and the bill was being prepared for a vote. At that point, according to House committee chair Mark Dion, D-Portland, Gov. Paul LePage’s office asked for a chance to study the issue. Then, two legislators on the committee were against the bill. On Wednesday, just one voted against it in a straw poll taken just before the bill was tabled.
Legislators agreed and LePage formed a task force that would review the needs, resources and opportunities for efficiency among natural resource law enforcement.
The task force’s final report was issued in November and released to the public last week. In that report, task force members reached a compromise that would phase in the arming of rangers over an unspecified period of time.
But on Wednesday, legislators were not entirely satisfied with the work that had been done, and more specifically criticized the fact that none of the departmental commissioners who were on the task force and were at the work session appeared at the work session, though all were invited.
According to committee analyst Curtis Bentley, commissioner John Morris of the Department of Public Safety responded by saying, “If you ask specific questions we’re happy to answer them. Because the report speaks for itself.”
Dion then removed Bentley from the chair immediately in front of legislators and said the “empty seat” where a commissioner would have sat was troubling to him.
“I can only imagine if I filed a motion in front of a judge and said, ‘The motion speaks for itself,’” Dion said. “It wouldn’t be received so well.”
It has been a bone of contention among some legislators that LePage’s senior departmental leaders have refused to appear in front of committees of late.
The fact that no commissioners that participated on the task force — Morris; Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner Chandler Woodcock; Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry commissioner Walt Whitcomb; or Marine Resources commissioner Pat Keliher — were present was not appreciated by other legislators seeking answers.
“I think they spent the entire summer coming up with a nice, clean way to say, ‘Boys, do all you want, we’re gonna kill it anyway,’” said Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman.
Chief Ranger Pilot John Crowley said after the work session that nearly $1 million exists in a balance-forward account that is built up when Maine rangers fight fires out of state. When a legislator who was not on the committee — Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow — asked whether committee members would like to hear information from Crowley that might make funding questions more clear, she was told that they did not.
Crowley said he was frustrated after the bill was tabled again.
“The frustration is, you can’t make the commissioner spend any more he doesn’t want to, but the money is there,” Crowley said of his own commissioner, Whitcomb. “[The money] is designed for fighting forest fires. But it can be used.”