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Legislature Holds on Gov. LePage's Budget Due to Questions About Downeast Jail Closing

FILE: Maine Gov. Paul LePage pauses during a meeting to discuss the state's efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

Last week the Maine Department of Corrections sent pink slips to all of the workers at the Downeast Correctional facility in Machiasport, because under the budget plan proposed by Gov. Paul LePage, the facility would be closed. That budget has not been approved by the Legislature, however, and so the dispute has found its way to the Appropriations Committee.

Before the Governor’s budget can even reach the floor of the house or senate, it has to make it through appropriations. But committee members say they don’t have enough information about the administration’s plan to close the Downeast facility, and relocate its 75 inmates. Rep. John Martin, a democrat from Eagle lake, says he had information from guards and others that inmates across the state system who have seven months or less to serve would have their sentences reduced, and the remaining inmates at Downeast could be transferred to other prisons. Republican Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner questioned the veracity of that information.

“It’s hearsay and I don’t think there is any fact at this point in time,” Timberlake said during committee deliberations. “It truly may be but at this point in time it is just hearsay.”

“Let me just follow up with that Mr. Chairman,” Martin said. “That is not hearsay. And I think that to do information in closed doors and back doors would be a horrible mistake.”

Martin and other committee members say if the administration has a plan for closing Downeast, it should share it.

“I am not requesting that we have a full public hearing on this issue,” said Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine, of Westbrook who co-chairs the committee. “I do think it is important that we have a work session where we hear from the administration and perhaps others about this situation.”

The other co-chair, Republican Sen. Jim Hamper of Oxford says the committee should issue a request that administration officials appear at a work session later this week. Augusta Republican Senator Roger Katz says he also has questions about the status of a pre-release center for Washington County that was approved as part of the financing package for the Maine Correctional
Center last year.

“What is the status if the administration’s efforts to carry out the, the intent, the legislatures intent with respect to the Washington County pre-release center?” Katz asked.

There have been past discussions at the Statehouse about sending some Downeast Correctional Center employees to that pre release center, who would otherwise be laid off. As expected, the layoff notices upset union officials. Jim Mackie, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that represents corrections officers at Downeast says legal action is possible.

“The attorneys are still chewing on whether or not we have standing to file for injunctive relief on that at this point in time, so we are waiting for the final so we are still waiting for the final react from our attorneys,” says Mackie.

The Appropriations Committee had set themselves a deadline of this week to complete their action on the budget so the full legislature could consider it next week. Some on the panel doubt that can happen and say the dispute over the Downeast Correctional facility will only slow down the process.

This story was originally published on May 22, 2017 at 5:30 p.m.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.