AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday he may call out the Maine Army National Guard if legislators don’t quickly provide money to hire judges, agents and prosecutors to fight the state’s drug epidemic.
The Republican governor made a surprise appearance before the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, speaking after Attorney General Janet Mills gave an update on coordinated efforts to fight opioid abuse. In the first half of 2015, 105 people died of drug overdoses in Maine.
LePage said he’ll be contacting Maine legislative leaders next week to ask for more resources, perhaps when the Legislature returns to confirm his nominees for state positions on Nov. 19.
“You either work with me and give me some agents, or I will call the Guard up,” he told the committee.
During LePage’s conversation with the committee, some Democrats pressed him about how addiction treatment and education fit into his plan to combat drug abuse in Maine. The governor responded that the current focus needs to be on law enforcement, stemming the flow of drugs into Maine by arresting and jailing dealers.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a statement that the Legislature will address proposed bills tackling “treatment, recovery and enforcement” during the January session.
“If we can come to an agreement on solutions before then, I would be open to having a special session, but we won’t come back to have a partisan fight or waste taxpayer dollars,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that LePage has said the state doesn’t have enough people enforcing drug laws. Earlier this year, he said he would activate the National Guard to intercept dealers bringing drugs into Maine, but he did not offer details or follow through on that call.
In June, the Legislature’s two-year budget was vetoed by LePage, who said it was soft on drug traffickers. The budget cut his initial request of seven more Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents and four judges to four agents and two judges. It also allows $200,000 in federal money for the MDEA to use at its discretion to hire more staff or begin new programs.
The Guard helps analyze intelligence as part of a new group of law enforcement agencies called a “fusion center,” but John Morris, the governor’s public safety commissioner, said in August it would “not be serving in a law enforcement role at this time.”
But on Thursday, LePage said Maine should have 10 more drug agents, plus more prosecutors and judges, for which he pegged a likely cost at between $5 million and $6 million.
He also seems to have a law enforcement role in mind for the Guard, telling reporters that the administration would work with sheriffs’ offices and local police departments to identify “holes and needs that they have” that could be filled by Guard troops, “so we can attack this whole supply side of drugs.”
Interim Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon said amid the crisis, the biggest problem facing his agency is that there’s “not enough time in the day” to handle the drug cases that come in, which require “triaging.”
He said more agents are needed across the state and if Guard troops could be used in law enforcement, it would be helpful, but it would also take lots of time and money to train them.
“It’s hard to speculate as to what the intent is,” Reardon said.
Mills, a Democrat, said that the Guard is “very helpful in data analysis,” but they’re not “law enforcement officers” or “boots on the ground.”
She also questioned whether federal law allows them to act in that capacity, though the National Guard Association of the United States, a lobbying group, says federal law does allow for Guard troops to be used for law enforcement.
LePage has sparred with Democrats on how to fight drug abuse. The governor talked about the importance of treatment at length on Thursday, but he focused his policy proposals on enforcement. Democrats have blamed the administration’s policies, including a two-year cap on methadone treatment, for exacerbating issues on the treatment side.
“It’s true that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Mills told the committee, “but you can’t get out of the problem without arrests, either.”