AUGUSTA, Maine — A $3.7 million bill aimed at Maine’s drug crisis was advanced by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee on Tuesday, but top House Republicans are opposed to one of its funding sources.
The proposal, which would fund 10 new drug agents and expand treatment, education and recovery options, was rolled out by legislative leaders in December, was fast-tracked for passage and could reach the Senate floor for a preliminary vote as soon as Thursday.
An amended version passed in a 9-4 vote on Tuesday by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. The opposition came from minority House Republicans, whose leader, Ken Fredette, R-Newport, has withheld support for the bill since it was announced and said he doesn’t support it in its current form.
The bill has changed since it was announced: Originally a $4.9 million package, the total has been lowered after over-budgeting was discovered and Gov. Paul LePage announced a financial order funding the agent positions in the short term.
Now, the main divide isn’t around the bill’s policy proposals but its funding.
The committee’s recommendation is that $2.5 million of the proposal be funded with money from a one-time, $21.5 million settlement last year between Maine and Standard and Poor’s, a Wall Street ratings agency, according to Melissa Simones, the policy director for Senate President Mike Thibodeau, the bill’s sponsor.
But the dissenting House Republican members suggested that the portion be paid with unallocated money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine — funded by 1998 tobacco settlement money.
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a committee member, said that funding was intended for public health projects and called the Wall Street settlement money “a locked box” that he didn’t want to set a precedent for raiding.
His caucus’ support is crucial for the bill, an emergency provision that will require two-thirds support in both chambers to pass or override a veto from LePage, who said he’d veto an earlier version of the bill.
Fredette said there are opportunities for consensus on the bill, but he said he won’t support breaking into that money, “and I suspect the governor’s position is exactly the same.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.
The office of Attorney General Janet Mills, the Democrat who administers that settlement money, has approved of its use in the bill, and House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, called the House Republicans move “really unnecessary.”
“Dragging this process out is disappointing, and I think to the Maine people, it’ll appear as political gamesmanship,” he said.