AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage crafted a plan to prevent the closure of several county jails in the coming months.
Democrats say the plan gives the governor unchecked power and would be unnecessary if LePage followed current law and ended his refusal to nominate members to the state Board of Corrections.
An amendment revealed Tuesday by Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, and Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, would create a LePage-appointed “receiver” to act in place of the state Board of Corrections — and at the pleasure of the governor — in the disbursement of emergency state funds to county jails.
The move would allow LePage to appoint a receiver “when, in the judgment of the governor, the state Board of Corrections system, for whatever reason, fails to fulfill the goal of sound fiscal management,” the amendment states. The receiver would be in place until June 30 of this year.
At issue are funding shortfalls totaling nearly $2.5 million this year for Maine’s 15 county jails. Five of those jails — in Aroostook, Cumberland, Penobscot, York and Androscoggin counties — are in danger of closure by the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30. Sheriffs and lawmakers from those counties have said they would have to refuse to accept new prisoners or release inmates if they ran out of money.
The amendment offered Tuesday would provide $2,171,316. It was unclear, even among lawmakers, why the amount in the amendment was lower than the need identified by the jails.
“This is a minimum funding request; there’s nothing in here that’s not needed,” said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, who is chairman of the Board of Corrections. “However you folks choose to do it, I just ask that whatever it is be done so these counties can get their money to continue operations through the end of this year.”
County jails have endured funding problems for years, which came to a head in 2008 after years of steep spending increases in the range of 9 percent a year. Then-Gov. John Baldacci led an effort to consolidate oversight of the jails under a state Board of Corrections.
Last year, lawmakers enacted a bill — in spite of a veto by LePage — that gave the board authority to correct problems in the system. The bill allows the board, for example, to control the transfer of federal, state and local inmates among the jails, a process which at present is handled at the local level and has been a source of controversy for years.
The 2014 bill also reduced the number of Board of Corrections members from nine to five and gave the governor the authority to appoint three of them. The board now has only two members and has seen the resignation of its executive director and finance director in recent weeks.
However, LePage refuses to make those appointments and has said repeatedly that he believes whoever has control over the jails should also be the entity that pays for them. Jails are funded by a mix of state and local funding.
“If they put them in receivership and we have somebody in charge of the money, then I would go along and give them more funds,” said LePage on Tuesday. “Short of that, I’m not interested.”
Some lawmakers said LePage created the problem by not nominating members to the board and that current law already allows him to have the commissioner of the Department of Corrections step in to manage certain functions, including inmate levels. The lack of a quorum on the Board of Corrections prevents it from implementing the 2014 law.
“If the governor would just obey the law, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who is co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “It wouldn’t be an issue.”
LePage told reporters Tuesday in Augusta that the Board of Corrections “was broken the day it started” and reiterated that he won’t make nominations.
“I don’t have a preference whether the state takes them over or the county takes them over,” said LePage “What I do have a preference [for] is whoever runs the jails has to be … the person in charge of the finances as well. You can’t have one group run the jails and the other group pay for them.”
Other than closures, a failure to fill the budget gap at county jails would have a range of consequences. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said he would be forced to send about 75 inmates housed in Portland to the counties they came from in order to maintain safe staffing ratios. Without more funding, Joyce said he will continue preparations to close a pod and a Community Corrections Center on Feb. 23.
Approximately 20 of those inmates — and an overall total of 39 — would return to Oxford County, where Sheriff Wayne Gallant said the jail isn’t licensed to hold prisoners for more than 72 hours. Gallant said he is trying to determine whether the county’s inmates could be housed in a state prison.
“I’m against the wall right now, because if [Joyce] brings up a van full of prisoners right now, do I even let them in the door?” he said. “If I do, I’m immediately violating the law.”
Some lawmakers said they didn’t like the use of the term “receiver,” which often is associated with bankruptcy, and the fact that the amendment was presented at a public hearing without any notification.
“I heard about this at 11:30 this morning,” said Bill Whitten, a lobbyist who works for county commissioners. “My commissioners and county manager have heard nothing about this and I think that’s really unfortunate.”
Winsor suggested that having the governor support the plan early in the process is important as a means of avoiding a veto later.
“This is one way to provide the funds you need to operate,” he said. “It’s not the only way, but it’s certainly the way the governor has bought into and I think we ought to recognize that.”
Bangor Daily News writer Mario Moretto and Sun Journal State Politics Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report.