AUGUSTA, Maine — A $4.9 million plan aimed at curbing Maine’s drug crisis received significant support from police and advocates at a Tuesday hearing, but political hurdles and a veto threat from Gov. Paul LePage loom.
The proposal rolled out in December by a bipartisan group of legislative leaders is split almost evenly between adding 10 state drug agents and increasing addiction treatment and drug education.
It’s likely to be the Legislature’s main vehicle to fight Maine’s addiction epidemic in 2016: Maine had 174 drug overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2015 and is on pace for up to 250 for the year, which Attorney General Janet Mills has said would be a record.
The plan is supported by Mills, leaders of both parties in the Senate and House Democrats, the city of Bangor, police chiefs and the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, but it doesn’t make everybody happy.
LePage said in a radio interview Tuesday that he’d veto it, shortly before the Legislature’s budget-writing, health and public safety committees began a lengthy hearing on the plan stretching into Tuesday evening.
That threat came despite the fact that for much of the last year, the Republican governor urged legislators to fund 10 new drug agents, even threatening to call out the National Guard.
But minutes before legislative leaders’ Dec. 9 news conference unveiling the bill, LePage announced a financial order moving $781,000 from the Gambling Control Board to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to hire the agents and on Tuesday, his administration said it doesn’t need legislative funding to sustain the positions until 2017.
Testifying Tuesday, Baileyville Police Chief Bob Fitzsimmons said that addicts often come to him asking for help. He takes them to a Calais hospital, where rooms may not be available for weeks, so they often return home and to their addictions.
“I haven’t helped them. I can’t help them. I don’t have the resources,” he said. “I need you folks to help me with those resources.”
On the treatment and education side, the proposal would put $900,000 toward an effort to establish a detox facility in Greater Bangor, also giving $700,000 to the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs for recovery centers and to deliver education services in schools.
LePage took issue on Tuesday with that latter item, calling it “corruption” that bypasses the state’s normal request-for-proposals process. Lindsay Crete, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, said the North Berwick Democrat’s focus is to “ensure the funds reach the people that need them,” and he’d be open to bipartisan changes.
Another $800,000 would go toward expanding treatment services for uninsured Mainers, and $100,000 would go to jails and police to establish pathways to treatment and recovery services.
Addiction experts have said the funding amounts aren’t significant enough to make a major difference and that it should have included Suboxone and methadone treatment.
Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, called the total for jails and law enforcement “ridiculous” and urged lawmakers to approve more. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine supported the treatment portion of the bill but opposed adding agents, saying that increased enforcement won’t curb addiction.
However, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said while the bill “isn’t perfect” and the Legislature will consider other drug bills this year, “it’s a good first step.” He called it “the right thing to do.”
But John Morris, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, said gambling board funding can sustain the positions through the two-year budget cycle ending in June 2017, after which the Legislature’s budget would have to pay for them. It meshed with an argument from House Republican leaders, who advocated slowing the bill’s path to passage.
Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, a health committee member, asked Patricia Kimball, executive director of Wellspring, an addiction counseling and outpatient center in Bangor who was speaking on behalf of the association, if a slower approach would help.
“People are dying. I can’t wait any longer,” Kimball said, drawing applause.