AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is proposing to slash funding for the mothballed state Board of Corrections in the coming budget — a move that could all but ensure the group’s permanent dissolution.
The board has been defunct since 2014, when member departures and LePage’s unwillingness to appoint new members rendered the body incapable of achieving a quorum needed to take action. The board is a remnant of former Gov. John Baldacci’s attempt to create a more organized system for overseeing Maine’s county jails, but funding and jurisdictional problems rendered the board largely ineffective.
A temporary fix to address a shortfall in the current fiscal year passed in January, putting the Department of Corrections commissioner, Joseph Fitzpatrick, in charge of the jails until the end of this January.
The issue has only intensified already simmering concerns over administration of the county jails, leaving some lawmakers wondering whether control should simply revert to the counties, where it resided until the board’s creation in 2008.
LePage has maintained that he doesn’t care whether the state or counties run the jails. But a package of proposed changes to his biennial budget plan introduced to legislative budget writers on Thursday includes a provision to gut the Board of Corrections’ operations fund, which is worth about $6.5 million per year.
The change package would spend that money instead on raises for state prison employees, who Fitzpatrick said are paid significantly less than their counterparts in the county jails or state police.
“We have a significant number of vacancies” at state corrections facilities, Fitzpatrick told the Appropriations Committee. “No matter what we do to recruit people, we can’t retain them.”
But the operations fund represents a significant part of the Board of Corrections’ funding, and the only portion over which it exercises discretion. According to statute, the fund can be doled out to individual jails in chunks of up to $50,000, to meet staffing, facility or technology needs.
(Contrast that with the Community Corrections Fund, worth about $5.6 million per year, which flows through the Board of Corrections but is distributed by formula to the counties.)
Lawmakers on the Criminal Justice Committee are chewing a bill — LD 186, by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville — that would restore control of the jails to the counties. If such a bill passes, the Board of Corrections and its funding would become a moot issue anyway.
But the bill is far from a sure thing. If the Legislature opts to keep the Board of Corrections around, LePage’s plan to cut its funding would render it even more useless than its critics claim it already is.
Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, the House chairwoman of Criminal Justice, said the defunding measure would “underhandedly shut down the Board of Corrections” before the Legislature had a chance to decide the path forward.
She asked the Appropriations Committee to hold off on the plan until her group decides how to proceed with Davis’ bill.
Appropriations will hold a public hearing on the governor’s proposed changes to his budget plan at 10 a.m. Monday.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.