AUGUSTA, Maine — In a last-minute move, Gov. Paul LePage is offering up two bills he wants the Legislature to consider when it reconvenes Thursday to take up a long list of veto override votes.
One of the bills offered by LePage would fund a proposed expansion of the state’s drug court system, adding two judges and two prosecutors while also boosting the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency with 10 additional special agents.
The new proposal is similar to an amended version of a LePage bill that sought to create 14 new MDEA agents, four new judges and four new prosecutors. Lawmakers voted to pass the bill, but the Legislature’s budget-writing committee failed to fund it.
“Although my proposal was widely supported, it died when the Appropriations Committee failed to fund it,” LePage said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday afternoon. “But this issue is much too important to let die. I am pleased that we have found the funding to help combat the drug epidemic that is ravaging our state. We cannot wait any longer. We must act now to crack down on drug dealers and make our streets safe for Maine families.”
The bill also provides $750,000 to augment existing drug addiction treatment programs.
LePage funds the $2.5 million expansion with money from the state’s unclaimed property fund, which has about a $6 million balance. The funding is for one year and is meant to establish a baseline for future budgets.
Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, criticized the LePage proposal Wednesday, saying it would do little to solve Maine’s drug problem.
“The governor continues to push a proposal that would scale up an already-bloated criminal justice system while giving a back seat to more effective treatment programs,” Amarasingham said in a prepared statement. “For the last 40 years we’ve thrown millions at law enforcement while spending on treatment and prevention programs has dwindled. A truly balanced approach would mean scaling back law enforcement while increasing treatment and prevention.”
The other emergency bill being proposed by LePage looks to move funds from the state’s Healthy Maine Partnership programs in order to increase state Medicaid reimbursement rates to nursing homes.
Rick Erb, chief executive officer of the Maine Health Care Association — an organization that represents 101 nursing homes in Maine — said funding is not adequate.
“It is well documented that Maine under-reimburses its nursing homes by over $22 million per year already, threatening their viability,” Erb said in a prepared statement. “We believe this to be penny wise and pound foolish.”
LePage found funding for the measure in another bill he vetoed, LD 1719, which earmarked money from a state tobacco settlement fund for smoking cessation outreach and other pilot programs.
In his veto message on LD 1719, LePage wrote the programs proposed could be funded with other sources of money including grants.
“It’s time we figure out our priorities, a vote to override this veto is a vote to close nursing facilities,” LePage wrote in his veto message.
A release issued from LePage’s office late Wednesday did not detail how much money the governor was hoping to use from the fund for nursing homes.
While a longer-term fix in the form of higher reimbursement rates is included in the supplemental budget passed by the Legislature earlier this spring, that new funding does not kick in until July 1.
That supplemental budget bill is also among the 48 bills vetoed by LePage that the Legislature is scheduled to override or sustain Thursday.
“Our elderly and disabled should not be forced to live in fear of knowing if they will have a place to call home tomorrow,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “I simply will not stand for this and it’s why I have provided a solution to pay our nursing homes to keep our most vulnerable Mainers safe.”
Thursday was widely expected to be the last day of the 126th legislative session, but Wednesday’s late moves by LePage could push lawmakers into the first full week of May or beyond. LePage previously has threatened to keep lawmakers working all summer if they didn’t put together an adequate budget plan.
His decision Wednesday to introduce new bills threw a monkey wrench in the works for leaders in the Legislature’s Democratic majority.
Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Democratic leaders were meeting with LePage’s staff Wednesday afternoon to discuss the proposed legislation.
Democrats have been critical of LePage for not offering a supplemental budget in 2014 and for not engaging more diplomatically in the lawmaking process in order to broker deals on bills that had bipartisan support, including the earlier version of the MDEA bill.
Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the Legislature in its supplemental budget has increased funding to nursing homes by $14 million over the next three years. She said $10 million of that comes in the next two years.
“If Republicans stick with their votes, that bill will become law,” Quintero wrote in a message to the Sun Journal. She also noted that another bill, authored by state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, that became law earlier this week will provide an additional $4 million to long-term care facilities.
Combined, the bills will draw down more than $24 million in federal funds, “to help our poorest seniors, especially in rural areas,” Quintero wrote.
Democrats said the funds LePage wants to use for the nursing homes are meant for cancer prevention.