AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature voted Thursday to enhance the state’s embattled child welfare system with $21.2 million in funding, marking the first legislative response to the deaths of two girls who died allegedly at the hands of their caregivers.
It was the key item in reforms recommended by Gov. Paul LePage and whittled down by a legislative panel ahead of lawmakers’ return to the State House, where they are nearing a likely September end to a session that has stretched more than four months past its scheduled adjournment date.
Partisan fights have kept the Legislature that presided over a 2017 state shutdown in gridlock since April, but there was little left to fight about Thursday. Lawmakers settled miscellaneous business after they were gridlocked since July over a legal error that once locked away money in Maine’s taxpayer-funded campaign fund.
Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against fixing it, and Democrats retaliated by holding up votes on a compromise bill to conform Maine to the federal tax code. But decisions by a judge and the Maine Ethics Commission opened the Clean Election fund earlier this month.
All of this left the child welfare bills as the marquee issue facing lawmakers Thursday. LePage submitted five bills aimed at fixing the system after the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December. A legislative committee cited the Department of Health and Human Services for “poor job performance” in one case.
LePage’s office has said other proposals are forthcoming in a budget blueprint for the next governor and the department has made internal policy changes, though caseworkers have criticized some for increasing caseloads. More kids were removed from their families in the first four months of 2018 than in the same period last year.
The House spent nearly two hours debating a LePage proposal to de-emphasize family reunification in cases involving endangered children. That debate concluded early Thursday evening, when the House voted 74-46 to support the changes, echoing an earlier, more resounding Senate vote.
The bill shifts Maine slightly away from a policy of family reunification in child welfare cases, changing the law to say that “reasonable efforts” for reunification should be made, and other bills allowing the department to retain records from unsubstantiated child welfare cases for five years and obtain criminal history information.
The funding bill that the Legislature passed easily on Thursday includes $8 million this year to replace an outdated information system for tracking cases, $3.7 million in raises for caseworkers, $2.6 million in pay increases for foster families, funds 16 new caseworker positions and provides additional revenue for child protective services. Federal funds will cover $1.7 million of the total cost.
“This is not going to fix all of the problems,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the co-chair of the legislative panel overseeing the system. “This is intended to be a first step.”
In other business on Thursday, lawmakers:
— Considered whether to give the secretary of state more than $300,000 for the 2018 elections. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap surprised lawmakers Thursday by telling them that he needed $334,000 more to cover unforeseen costs of running ranked-choice voting in the November elections. Republicans — especially Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta — challenged Dunlap, a Democrat, muscularly on that in an evening hearing before the budget committee. The panel agreed to give Dunlap the money, but because 42 House members were absent for that chamber’s vote on a bill to provide the money, it fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass as an emergency measure, allowing Dunlap to receive it in time for the November election.
— Approved tax conformity legislation. LePage proposed a sweeping tax-cut plan earlier this year, but Republicans and Democrats settled on a more modest package that will cut state taxes by an estimated $22.2 million next year while conforming to federal tax changes. It includes a smaller corporate tax cut than LePage wanted, an expanded property tax credit, and a new family and medical leave credit.
— Agreed to ask Maine’s high court if federal law allows tribes to build casinos without state approval. The House voted 70-54 to pass an order from Rep. Henry Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians that would ask the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to offer an opinion on whether federal law could be interpreted in a way that allows tribes to build casinos. Now, it can only be done in Maine through referendum or with legislative approval.
— Shot down a probe into House leadership’s handling of allegations against a resigned lawmaker. The House voted 72-51 to table a call from Rep. Paula Sutton, R-Warren, to investigate the way the office of House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, responded to sexual misconduct allegations against Rep. Dillon Bates, D-Westbrook. All but one Democrat and four Republicans voted to effectively block the probe. Bates resigned earlier this month after The Bollard published allegations that he had relationships with high school girls he met as a teacher or coach, which he has denied.
— Authorized the placement of a monument to families of fallen military members near the State House. Both chambers approved a bill to put a monument in Capitol Park, on the east side of the State House, to Gold Star families.
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