AUGUSTA, Maine — The House of Representatives on Wednesday, with broad bipartisan support, passed a scaled-back version of a Gov. Paul LePage bill that would add drug enforcement agents, judges and prosecutors to the state’s payroll in an effort to bring under control the state’s growing opiate drug problems.
The measure also increases funding to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to enhance drug treatment programs for addicts.
The bill, LD 1811, as originally drafted would have added 14 new agents with to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, four new prosecutors for the state attorney general and four special district court judges to specialize in drug-crime cases.
Amendments lawmakers added to the bill scaled down the total numbers to 10 drug agents, two new prosecutors and two new judges, but both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the changes represented reasonable compromise and were a step towards addressing the state’s growing prescription painkiller and heroin addiction problems.
During a press conference Wednesday at the state’s Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, LePage said he would veto any version of the bill that had fewer positions for law enforcement than he proposed.
He said what he originally asked for is only half of what the state actually needs to combat the growing drug-crime problems facing the state.
“I’m not playing games anymore,” LePage said. “I’m tired of playing games. In the last two years, this Legislature has done nothing, it has no courage. It will not do what the Maine people want, and it’s time.”
The House passed the amended bill, 126-14. Those voting against the measure said either it did not go far enough, it didn’t offer Mainers a chance to vote on marijuana legalization and taxation or it did not adequately address drug treatment programs but instead left that effort largely to DHHS.
Democrats said they supported the bill because it now included funding for additional treatment, but they also recognized the need to give Maine law enforcement the additional resources it needs to fight drug-related crime.
“We know that treatment is the best way to reduce the drug epidemic and we are pleased that was put on the bill,” the House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham said.
State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the bill recognizes the scope and magnitude of the problem and takes clear steps to address it.
“This bill strikes a reasonable balance between the need to supplement the lack of resources for law enforcement for combating opiate and methamphetamine crime in the state and looks to return funds to accounts within DHHS for purposes of opiate treatment,” Dion said. “We went from 14 to 10 agents. That’s still a significant commitment.”
Dion said the funding proportions in the bill were based on Republican suggestions. He said even the most conservative lawmakers recognize that “both prongs need to be funded moving forward.”
He said ultimately reducing the number of addicts would reduce the demand for illegal drugs and drive down drug-related crime as well.
Dion said he hoped the strong bipartisan support of the bill would send a clear message to LePage that lawmakers recognize the crisis and want to address it. He said he hoped the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee would now be able to work with the administration to find the estimated $2.5 million a year it would take to fund the legislation.
Dion said the proposal to legalize marijuana and tax it to help pay for the expanded enforcement and drug treatment costs should be addressed in stand-alone legislation. He said a proposal that would allow voters to decide the legalization question — if they approved it — would not bring any new funding to the state until 2016 at the earliest.
“I think that should be examined on its own, as a bill by the committee, and not simply brought forward as an amendment for purposes of financing,” Dion said.
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the Senate’s assistant majority leader, said the measure tackles both sides of the problem.
“There’s supply and demand in this. As long as we only go after supply, we will never win this drug war,” Haskell said.
Republicans said they backed the bill because it went a long way towards doing what LePage had proposed.
“We recognize first of all that there is a significant need in Maine right now for state intervention regarding a drug problem that is pretty pervasive,” House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said following the vote Wednesday. “The governor’s approach is one approach to try and do that.”
Fredette said the state’s drug problem was one of the most “underreported problems in the state of Maine right now.” He said the drug problem involves all kinds of drugs, not only opiates and painkillers but also marijuana and cocaine.
Lawmakers who voted against the bill said it did not go far enough to provide funding for drug-treatment programs or it did not provide adequate resources to law enforcement to combat the problems on the street.
Meanwhile, MDEA Director Roy McKinney said law enforcement was in a pitched battle with drug dealers in Maine.
“Drug dealers have a beachhead in Maine,” McKinney said. “Drug dealers create crime. Simply stated, drug dealing is about making money, and that money comes from robberies, thefts and fraud.”
The bill still faces additional votes in the Senate and the House.
Bangor Daily News State House reporter Mario Moretto contributed to this report.