AUGUSTA, Maine — While the initiative has not yet been subjected to a single vote in the Legislature, Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday came out swinging against lawmakers who have criticized his plan to beef up Maine’s efforts to arrest and prosecute drug offenders.
“They are weak on drugs,” LePage told reporters, describing the legislators. “They simply don’t want to deal with the problem. Frankly, they shouldn’t be in this hall, they shouldn’t be in this building if they can’t take care of our children. And the gloves are off now.”
The Republican governor has proposed funding for an additional four District Court judges, seven additional Maine Drug Enforcement agents and four assistant attorneys general, all with an eye toward fighting drug dealers in Maine. The plan also includes the hiring of 22 additional district attorneys to ensure cases are processed quickly, although LePage didn’t address that provision during a press conference on his budget proposal held Tuesday in the Cabinet Room.
All told, the plan would cost about $8.1 million, according to the governor’s estimates.
Last week, those Democrats pelted LePage’s public safety commissioner, John Morris, with concerns that increased law enforcement, without a corresponding increase in spending on treatment for addicts, is an incomplete solution.
It’s the same concern they cited when killing a similar plan by the governor last year. Maine can’t arrest its way out of the substance abuse epidemic, Democrats have said.
The drug abuse problem has been framed by both sides as one of supply and demand, with LePage and his Republicans focused on cutting the supply of drugs from dealers and Democrats more keen to fight addiction with therapy and rehabilitation service, thus eliminating the demand for drugs.
During the press conference, LePage and Morris continued to cite the effect of addiction on children. In 2014, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 961 babies were born addicted or affected by their mother’s drug use during pregnancy. That’s about 8 percent of the state’s live births.
Morris said that if the children “had been affected with bad baby formula, there would be a call to action and a public outrage that none of us would be able to withstand. Where is the outrage?”
Rep. Lori Fowle of Vassalboro, the Democratic chairwoman on the public safety committee, said law enforcement efforts cannot exist in a vacuum.
“We have to have the answers to our questions on treatment,” Fowle said. “Where is the treatment in the budget? He has an initiative to support agents, and initiative to support judges, and initiative to support prosecutors, but I haven’t gotten an answer on any initiatives that support the treatment for drug addiction in the state of Maine. That’s part of the crisis.”
Republicans contend that spending on drug treatment has more than kept up with spending on law enforcement, citing DHHS figures that show general fund spending on substance abuse treatment has grown from $2.6 million in 2008 to $4.6 million last year.
“We can spend all the money in the world on treatment, we’ll never have enough money if you don’t stop the source,” LePage said. “You’ve got to stop the drugs getting to the people.”
But LePage said Tuesday that he’s only “a few votes” away from passing his proposal. If that’s true, his latest effort to paint opponents as soft on crime may be an effort to swing those last votes. That’s a fight that will likely take place in the Democrat-controlled House, where Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said his caucus is dedicated to the cause.
“We’re in a different Legislature now,” Fredette said, citing the GOP’s new majority in the Senate and gains in his own chamber. “We will fight until the end of this session to get these positions funded. This is a critically important issue.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.