AUGUSTA, Maine — In a sharp reversal of a plan announced last week, Gov. Paul LePage is expected to endorse funding the Machiasport prison that his administration intended to close.
Legislative Republicans said Thursday that the Republican governor — who proposed closing Downeast Correctional Facility in his two-year budget plan — now wants to fund the prison for another nine months.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Thursday that LePage was expected to formally submit the change soon. The governor’s spokespeople didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Finance Commissioner Richard Rosen said that LePage is still considering options around closing or maintaining the facility, calling it “a work in progress.”
Last week, the Maine Department of Corrections announced plans to close the prison in June and issued layoff notices to its 46 employees. On Tuesday, the governor’s office said he plans to issue conditional commutations to some prisoners, pitching it as a work re-entry program.
News of a possible reversal came the same day that House of Representatives voted to pass a joint order sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, that directs the Legislature’s budget-writing committee to draft a bill funding the 100-inmate Downeast Correctional Facility for the next two years.
Maker said it was good news for Washington County, but called it a “tentative victory.” Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, said he will keep pushing for two years of funding.
“It’s nice that the conversation is now between nine months and two years versus three weeks and nine months,” Tuell said. “I’m certainly going to push for two years because everybody needs that time to get their ducks in a row.”
Others are reacting with cautious optimism. Jeffrey Davis, a Machiasport selectman, said he still felt “awful slighted” after the dispute and that local leaders share that sentiment, frustrated that no one from the administration consulted with town officials before deciding to close one of the town’s largest employers.
Some local businesses rely on the prison to supply workers. About 50 people from the prison work at BBS Lobster Trap, a Machiasport seafood distribution company. The loss of those workers and jobs likely would carry huge implications for the area.
Davis said he hopes a two-year funding deal is ultimately reached, rather than LePage’s nine-month proposal, saying “that would at least give us a heads up and time to work on a plan.”
The prison’s fate will still have to be solved by the Appropriations Committee, which hasn’t yet taken up the Washington County prison’s funding for the next two years. Earlier this year, the committee overseeing corrections voted unanimously to keep the prison open.
Maker said early Thursday afternoon that while it was “hearsay,” she has heard from many that LePage “realized when he looked at the commutations that we were going to actually be letting criminals back out again.”
Fredette said he was sure that ensuring prisoners were “properly vetted” was one of LePage’s considerations, adding that the nine-month extension would allow the Legislature to flesh out future plans for Maine’s prison system.
“I think providing some breathing room is always a good approach when there’s any uncertainty at all,” Fredette said.
BDN writer Nick McCrea contributed to this report.