AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan group of legislative leaders on Wednesday unveiled a $4.8 million plan to fight Maine’s drug crisis on all fronts: Law enforcement, treatment, recovery and education.
The proposal was offered Wednesday, a day before the deadline set by Gov. Paul LePage for legislative leaders to present a plan to hire at least 10 new Maine Drug Enforcement Agency investigators. LePage has said without an agreement by Dec. 10, he would call on the Maine National Guard to increase its involvement in fighting the drug epidemic.
LePage on Wednesday surprised lawmakers when he issued a financial order to support the immediate hiring of 10 new agents with $781,000 from funds allocated to the Gambling Control Board and MDEA. LePage said he hopes the Legislature will appropriate money from other sources to “backfill” the accounts he tapped for his financial order — which would fund the new agents through the end of June 2016.
“The hiring and training process can take months,” said LePage in a letter to Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “We need these agents to hit the streets as soon as possible.”
Thibodeau and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the State House that they were unaware of LePage’s financial order but support it.
“If the governor can act on that before we return for session, he should,” said Eves.
“I assume he’s taking us at our word to fund these positions,” said Thibodeau. “That we can get this bill to his desk some time in early January is my hope. Hopefully we can get it signed and enacted quickly.”
LePage, in turn, told reporters after the news conference that he had not seen the details of the lawmakers’ plan.
“You’re telling me [the details],” LePage said to a reporter. “They should tell me. I deserve the respect to be told, and I shouldn’t have to get it from you folks. They should be at least courteous enough to give me the damn plan.”
That comment continued a running dispute about communication between LePage and legislative leaders, who have largely talked about each other instead of to each other since contentious budget deliberations and disagreement over the meaning of “adjournment” at the end of the most recent legislative session.
Thibodeau said in a letter to LePage on Tuesday that the governor had declined for months to meet with him.
LePage said in a letter back, “I am more than willing to meet with you on matters of good public policy that will move our state forward and benefit the Maine people.”
Thibodeau and Eves said they have not yet identified a funding source for the package but were confident that legislative policy committees could find it.
“That’s the lowest hurdle that we have,” said Eves. “First is the agreement that we have a comprehensive approach.”
The package presented Wednesday, which still requires legislative approval and LePage’s signature, includes $2.4 million for the new agents as well as another $2.4 million to expand treatment, recovery and education programs. That spending breakdown reflects Democrats’ insistence on commensurate funding for addiction care and law enforcement.
“This plan is a first step toward a healthier Maine,” said Eves in a written statement. “For too long, families and communities have continued to fight addiction alone. After working hard to come together, we’ve crafted a targeted, comprehensive plan that addresses the reality of drug addiction in Maine.”
Here are the core elements of the plan:
— Increase the number of Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officers by 10 at a cost of $2.4 million.
— Assist local law enforcement efforts to help people pursuing treatment or recovery by creating Operation HOPE-like programs at five police departments, at a cost of about $10,000. Those programs train police officers to provide resources to addicts and their families, including the option for those who ask for help with addiction to receive one-on-one assistance with detoxification and recovery programs without fear of law enforcement action against them.
— Fund 10 new detoxification beds in Bangor at a cost of $1 million.
— Increase access to residential and outpatient treatment for the uninsured at a combined cost of $800,000.
— Double the number of peer support recovery centers in Maine to help recovering addicts avoid relapse, at a cost of $600,000.
— Encourage effective prevention and education programming in schools, with the cost to be absorbed within existing public school resources.
Absent from Wednesday’s roll-out of the plan were House Republican leaders who say they also weren’t included in meetings to develop the details. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said Wednesday morning that he attended a discussion about the plan on Monday but that at that point it existed only in broad strokes.
“As far as I know, there’s not a plan,” said Fredette before Wednesday’s news conference.
Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, reiterated Fredette’s concerns Wednesday afternoon and said she learned the details of the plan mostly through media releases. She said that while she and other House Republicans support a comprehensive approach that includes both law enforcement and treatment and recovery, the individual details require more study.
“We are not opposed to a multifaceted approach,” said Espling. “As far as the specifics, when it comes down to the money, we need to fully vet those ideas. … We always know that the devil is in the details. That’s what we’re trying to sift through now.”
Portland resident Julie Lawson, who is recovering from drug addiction and serves as an “Angel” in Scarborough Police Department’s Operation HOPE, spoke at Wednesday’s event.
“It’s not that we’re bad people,” she said. “It’s just that we’re controlled by a substance. … Politics aside, these are lives we’re talking about. We’re not junkies, and we’re not drug addicts. We’re people with substance abuse disorders who need to learn how to live our lives all over again.”
BDN State House writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.