AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s new Democratic House speaker emerged from a meeting with Gov. Paul LePage on Friday to say they agreed to a path for legislative leaders to approve a new, privately run mental health facility in Augusta by 2016’s end.
It soothed more than a week of State House contention after Democrats deadlocked with Republicans on two votes in the 10-member Legislative Council about a new building proposed on the grounds of Riverview Psychiatric Center.
The Republican governor wants it to house forensic patients deemed not guilty of crimes or unfit for trial who no longer need hospital-level care. He’s proposing to build it using existing funding in the Department of Health and Human Services budget at a cost of between $3 million and $5 million.
It’s a bid to regain federal certification at Riverview lost in 2013 after a review identified problems, including the presence of sheriff’s deputies who restrained violent patients with stun guns and handcuffs.
Democrats have said they support building a new facility, but they have a host of unanswered questions about it. But Republicans have blasted them for delaying the project in the evenly divided, 10-member Legislative Council to settle scores with LePage.
But on Friday, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and the governor’s office called their one-on-one meeting cooperative. Gideon said though she had to consult with other leaders, she and LePage agreed to “a plan to share information” to address Democrats’ concerns.
She said the Legislative Council, which must approve construction on the state complex in Augusta, may reconvene in the next three weeks to approve the project if things go according to plan.
“Our goal is to do things as quickly as possible,” she said.
After Democrats’ first vote against the construction in late November, LePage said he was looking at sites outside Augusta to build the facility, though the managers of Freeport and Bangor — both mentioned by him as potential locations — said they hadn’t been contacted.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the administration is looking to identify an out-of-town site, especially after Democrats voted Thursday against considering adding the issue to the council’s agenda.
“Patients are the No. 1 priority for him, and he’s moving forward with the process,” Bennett said. “He’s happy to have the Democrats work alongside him if they choose to.”