A largely united House Republican caucus on Thursday stymied a legislative effort to reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility, which Gov. Paul LePage abruptly closed last week.
The entire Democratic caucus supported the emergency bill, but all but seven Republicans voted no, dooming its chances of garnering the two-thirds support it needs to take effect immediately or survive a likely LePage veto.
By a vote of 87-59, the House passed the measure to provide $5.5 million for another year of operations while the facility’s future is studied by the Maine Department of Corrections. The bill faces additional votes in each chamber, but the House tally indicates its likely failure.
The bill later passed in the Senate by a vote of 31 to 3, but it didn’t change anything in light of the House vote.
Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said during floor debate that some of the House testimony was based on incorrect information regarding the facility’s viability.
“It was not a bad place, no matter what anybody tells you,” Maker said. “This was a slap in the face to common sense and values.”
House Republicans said it was rushed and would simply delay an unavoidable decision to close a facility the state can not afford to keep open.
“We all knew this was coming,” Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, said during House debate Thursday morning. “The time has come to finally close the book on the Downeast Correctional Facility so we can stop postponing the inevitable.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, went to the full Legislature with a unanimous “ought to pass” recommendation from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Espling said the facility is the most expensive to run in Maine and that at least two studies have called for its closure.
Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee, said there isn’t money to keep the prison open for another year and referred to dozens of bills that have already been enacted this year but have not been funded — which he said creates an unpaid bill for roughly $200 million.
“I think it’s unfortunate and unfair to take this money and put it ahead of some of the things we all already agree are high priority,” said Winsor.
Rep. Robert Alley Sr., D-Beals, said the facility is well-run.
“By his actions, [LePage] has closed a very effective facility and taken the livelihoods away from dozens of families,” Alley said.
Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said the loss of prisoners working in the community has already harmed Washington County’s struggling economy.
“That program has been devastated,” she said
Tuell argued that LePage doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally close the prison.
“Only the Legislature has the authority to close a facility,” Tuell said. “This facility is set in statute.”
A related bill, LD 1841, was introduced Thursday in the Senate. It authorizes the creation of a Department of Corrections pre-release center in Washington County, the funding for which was approved as part of a $149 million bond sold in 2016 for renovations and upgrades at the Maine Correctional Center in South Windham. The details of that bill have yet to be written and will be debated in the Criminal Justice Committee.
The future of Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport has been under debate in the Legislature since early 2017, when Gov. Paul LePage proposed closing it as part of his two-year state budget proposal. After outcry from members of the Legislature, the final budget included funding to keep the prison open through the end of this fiscal year, but LePage on Friday ordered a pre-dawn surprise operation to relocate the prisoners and issue layoff notices to the facility’s staff.
On Wednesday, a Superior Court judge announced that a “stand down agreement” had been reached by attorneys on both sides of the closure issue. It means that dismantling of the prison and removal of equipment will be on halt until the case is finally decided. Next steps in that case will be decided during a conference Friday.
Numerous employees affected by the closure were present at the State House on Thursday. Some said it was their third consecutive day traveling to Augusta for legislative hearings and Wednesday’s court hearing. Several of the employees said their families and communities are devastated by the layoffs, and anger at LePage for the way the closure happened was widespread. None of the employees would identify themselves for fear of losing their final weeks of pay and because of a clause in their contracts that bars them from talking to the media.
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