AUGUSTA, Maine — A forced marriage that didn’t work out. That’s the way one state lawmaker Wednesday described the failed 2007 effort to merge the operations of Maine’s county jails with the state’s prison system.
“I feel like we’re a marriage counselor,” Rep. Tim Theriault, R-China, said. “Thank goodness they don’t hate each other yet.”
But lawmakers on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee are at an impasse on how to proceed with the divorce.
On a 5-5 party-line vote, the committee was unable to advance a proposal that would have returned full operation and most of the costs of jails to county governments.
In 2007, the Legislature created the Board of Corrections, a state panel that was meant to oversee the consolidation of county jails and promote cooperation and cost-savings between the jails and the state’s Department of Corrections, which runs Maine’s prison system.
But since its onset, the Board of Corrections was fraught with controversy and counties frequently were in dispute over the funding they received or policies the state wanted them to pursue.
Republicans on the committee Wednesday largely seemed intent on returning the jails to county control with a gradual reduction in state funding coupled with a partial removal of a property-tax cap on counties that would allow them to raise money to keep their jails in business.
“There has to be some merit in going backwards because it didn’t work the way everyone had hoped it would,” Theriault said.
He said that during the public hearings on the issue and half a dozen work sessions the committee held on the legislation, very few people testified in favor of preserving the current system.
In all, county jails cost about $80 million to operate in 2014, with the counties paying about $62 million of that based on a 2008 law that capped what counties could collect from property taxes to pay for jails and the state picking up the difference.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage said jails should have a single master and either be run by state government or county government but not a hybrid of the two. LePage also has said whichever government runs the jail system — which houses pretrial suspects and those convicted and sentenced to serve nine months or fewer behind bars — should pay for it.
LePage’s stance followed actions by the Legislature in 2014, which attempted to smooth out some of the rough spots between counties and the state while giving the Board of Corrections more authority to make changes at jails. The changes reduced the number of members on the board and gave the governor the ability to control the majority of the appointments to the new five-member panel.
LePage vetoed the measure, but a two-thirds majority overturned his veto.
Since then, LePage has refused to appoint members to the board, leaving it without a quorum and unable to conduct business under state law. Both of the board’s paid employees resigned in early 2015, rendering the board an entity in law alone.
“The governor believes that the Board of Corrections system has been a failure and needs to be abolished,” Hank Fenton, an attorney in LePage’s office who presented written statements to the committee Monday, wrote. “When it comes to which entity should have this control, the governor does not have a preference.”
The legislation, now at an impasse, includes continued state funding for the next three years, which could be a sticking point for LePage.
While Republicans are looking to move control of the jails fully back to the counties, Democrats have said that would result in increased property taxes. A current cap in law allows counties to raise about $62 million collectively to fund the jails. One proposal lawmakers are considering gradually would remove that cap as state funds are reduced.
A number of lawmakers said they were not fully prepared to abandon the Board of Corrections and said the crisis lawmakers and counties are facing was because of LePage not making the appointments that would have allowed the Board of Corrections to continue to operate.
Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, said regardless of the solution the panel came up with, lawmakers couldn’t count on LePage’s administration to follow their designs.
Fowle and other lawmakers said that if they released a split decision on the fix, it had far less chance of making it into law with enough support to withstand a LePage veto.
Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, who attended the committee workshop on the legislation Wednesday, said all of Maine’s 16 county sheriffs were unified in wanting the jails returned to their control.
Gallant said it came down to who ultimately was going to pay to take care of those who break state laws.
“In 2007, when they dumped this on us, they were supposed to fund it, but the funding has not been there,” Gallant said. “The state has an obligation, as far as I’m concerned, to fund these jails. They are housing people who are arrested on state laws, not on county or municipal laws. They have to be housed because they violated state law and the state certainly has an obligation to provide some funding.”
Gallant also said he didn’t support reincarnating the Board of Corrections.
“It hasn’t worked. They tried and they had dedicated people on the board who tried, but it all comes down to funding sources,” Gallant said. “And if the funding was available, would the Board of Corrections work? I’m not sure.”
Gallant said a complete state takeover of the county jails didn’t seem to be a feasible option, either, because the state then would have to lease the jail facilities from the county and staff them with state employees.
The committee is set to meet again at 9 a.m. Friday and may reconsider its failed votes from Wednesday. Absent Wednesday were three committee members: two Democrats and one Republican.