AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee have cleared the way for nearly $2.5 million in emergency funding to flow to Maine county jails.
Legislative leaders from both major parties, along with Gov. Paul LePage, have agreed to the plan, which the Appropriations Committee endorsed unanimously on Friday.
Earlier concerns among some lawmakers that a Republican plan for LePage to appoint a “receiver” to disburse the money to the jails were abated Friday with an amendment by Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, that puts the responsibility on new Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick or his designee.
This arrangement will be in place through the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.
Between now and then, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee will develop a long-term fix designed to be acceptable to LePage, who vetoed a bill reflecting months of work by the Legislature to fix the county jail system last year. The Legislature overrode that veto.
Since then, LePage has refused to appoint three of the five members of the Board of Corrections, which the 2014 law calls on him to do.
LePage has said consistently that whichever entity controls the jails — be it county or state government — should have full control of the flow of money. Lawmakers, including Appropriations Committee co-chairwoman Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, have said LePage could have had all the control he wants by appointing a majority of the board and that his refusal to do so prevented the board from implementing a range of measures that would have avoided this year’s $2.5 million shortfall.
“I’m very sorry that the governor’s refusal to make the appointments to the Board of Corrections has brought us to this point, where we can’t send this money through the Board of Corrections as was the intent of the Legislature,” said Rotundo on Friday before the committee’s vote. “However, we have found a way to get the money to the counties.”
The roughly $2.5 million will come from the revenue surpluses in the state’s General Fund that are the result of higher-than-expected tax collections.
Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, was not pleased with the measure because she said she fears LePage will not follow recommendations about where the emergency funding should flow. Jails in five counties — Aroostook, Cumberland, Penobscot, York and Androscoggin — have identified significant financial shortfalls.
“The fact that we’re giving the governor and his commissioner authority to spend this money but not dictating where it’s going is bypassing the law of where the money should have gone,” said Fowle. “We’re changing policy, and it’s not just the money. … As a member of [the Criminal Justice Committee] I do have heartburn around that.”
The bill, LD 234, will go to the full Legislature for consideration.