AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans in the House of Representatives picked up Monday where they left off in June when they positioned themselves against the rest of the Legislature, this time against fast-tracking a bill designed to fight drug addiction in Maine.
Several House Republicans, including floor leaders Ken Fredette of Newport and Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, hosted a news conference Monday at which they said Democrats and Senate Republicans are moving too rapidly toward enactment of a bill that proposes spending $2.4 million on 10 new drug investigators and an equal amount on treatment and recovery programs.
“We have no interest in rushing a bill to the governor that is not properly vetted,” said Fredette.
At issue is a bill that resulted from Gov. Paul LePage’s long-term demand that the Legislature approve funding for 10 new Maine Drug Enforcement Agency investigators.
Last month, Democrats and Senate Republicans announced they had forged a $4.8 million deal that they hope to advance to LePage this month.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill Tuesday and possibly vote Wednesday on whether to recommend it to the full Legislature. Criminal Justice and Health and Human Services committees are scheduled to take part in Tuesday’s hearing.
“Before we spend any more money on [treatment and recovery], I think we need to slow down,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, the Republicans’ ranking House member on the Health and Human Services Committee. “My biggest concern is this huge push to rush it through all at once.”
Sanderson said she would oppose the bill until the Legislature conducts a wide-ranging audit of state spending on treatment and recovery and how effective existing programs are. Sanderson said despite years of debating LePage’s proposal for more law enforcement and many hours of testimony by treatment providers, the Legislature has not looked at the problem globally.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said there is no question for most Mainers that existing service providers are swamped by historic numbers of people struggling with addiction.
“Every day it gets worse,” he said. “People love to throw around numbers about what we’re spending on treatment, yet there are still waiting lists. … I don’t want to be the Legislature that says we’re not going to do anything about that. We need to make this small investment.”
Despite the fact that state government is operating with a small surplus midway through the fiscal year, Fredette fears state government could plunge tens of millions of dollars into the red as lawmakers confront a number of pressing and expensive issues, including whether Maine should conform with new federal tax code changes and fund shortfalls in budgets for indigent legal services and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Also looming is how to fund increases to the Maine Clean Elections Fund, which were approved by voters in November 2015.