AUGUSTA, Maine — A final fix to problems with the way the state helps fund county jails could be delayed for another year, according to lawmakers who said Tuesday neither of a pair of bills that could settle the matter will gain the support of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
“Our bills, no matter which one passes, are going to get vetoed,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick. “And the one that’s down in Appropriations is the one that’s going to have to take care of the situation until December, when we come back in.”
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, including House Chairwoman Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, confirmed they have kept in place state funding for jails at current levels as a backstop against defunding jails because of an impasse.
The committee also leaves in place an emergency law that keeps control and distribution of state funds for county jails in the control of LePage’s administration. An emergency funding bill that passed earlier this year and set aside $2.5 million to cover jail budget shortfalls in the current fiscal year included a provision that made the LePage administration responsible for doling out the funds.
But counties have said so far only 30 percent of the funds have been distributed as LePage’s administration has asked the jails seeking funds to first demonstrate a financial need.
Lawmakers on the budget committee said the move is a safeguard to ensure jails will have the funding they need should the Legislature fail to reach an agreement on broader legislation that partially cuts state funding for jails but also partially removes a property tax cap now in place for counties.
In total, the state’s 15 county jails cost about $80 million a year to operate and under current law, counties can raise no more than $62.5 million from property taxpayers to cover those costs.
One proposal would allow counties to increase property taxes by up to 3 percent each year to cover jail operating costs.
That bill also would dismantle the now-defunct state Board of Corrections. A bill in 2014 that was vetoed by LePage but overridden by the Legislature gave the board more authority and discretion in controlling spending at the jails.
Following the veto override, LePage refused to appoint new commissioners to vacancies on the board, leaving it without a quorum and unable to legally conduct any business. Compounding the issue was the resignation of the board’s two paid employees: its executive director and his top assistant.
But some lawmakers, including Gerzofsky, said they still support a consolidation of county jails with the state’s prison system and say fixes to spending and control issues under previous law were never given a chance to be put in place.
“I led the first charge to consolidate them and I’m still planning on consolidating them,” Gerzofsky said Tuesday.
LePage has said he’s opposed to a county jail system that has “two bosses,” meaning that control of the jails, along with their costs, should be either in the hands of county government or state government but not both in a hybrid model that’s failed to produce promised savings.
The issue of funding for county jails has been an ongoing dispute between the counties and the state since 2008, when Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s administration led an initiative aimed at saving money by consolidating some state prison and county jail operations.
But lawmakers this year were left scrambling to find $2.6 million to cover shortfalls at the state’s 15 county jails. Five jails, including those in Aroostook, Cumberland, Penobscot, York and Androscoggin counties, warned they were in danger of closing their doors by June 30 if they did not receive additional state support.
On Tuesday, Bill Whitten, a lobbyist for Maine’s county commissioners and an assistant county administrator for Cumberland County, said the current bill before lawmakers including the property tax increase for counties would still leave between a $1 million and $1.4 million funding shortfall for jails.
Whitten said some counties, including Cumberland, will be left few options and are planning to reduce their inmate numbers by returning inmates to other counties, which also don’t have the funds to care for them.
Whitten said only about 30 percent of the emergency funding that was earmarked to help struggling jails earlier this year had been passed on to the counties.
“The way it is set up now, at this moment, the Department of Corrections is controlling all the funding and the supplemental funding that got pushed through here quicker than hell in January. It was supposed to all be distributed, but only about a third of it has been,” Whitten said.
He said the current bill does put most of the funding jails need in place, but it does so with a property tax hike, and many lawmakers are opposed to shifting more jail costs onto local taxpayers, Whitten said.