Gov. Paul LePage announced Wednesday that his administration has found $2.5 million to pay for a drug enforcement bill that would add agents, judges and prosecutors and increase funding for addiction treatment programs.
The bill was enacted with broad bipartisan support, but the Legislature’s budget committee did not fund it. On Wednesday, the LePage administration said it has found a projected surplus in the state’s unclaimed-property fund, which is overseen by the State Treasurer’s Office and consists of money and personal assets that are considered lost or abandoned.
The governor said he will propose emergency legislation Thursday to allocate the surplus to the drug enforcement initiative. But it’s unclear whether the Legislature will consider it.
The governor’s original proposal was strictly a drug enforcement measure, to add 14 agents in the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, four judges to preside over cases in the state drug court, and four assistant attorneys general dedicated to prosecution of drug crimes. It had no provisions for treatment programs.
Lawmakers later enacted an amended version that authorized 10 MDEA officers, two attorneys general and two judges, and added $750,000 for existing drug treatment programs. The estimated cost was $2.25 million.
According to a news statement, the final version of L.D. 1811 will mirror the bill that died when it was not funded by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
In a written statement, LePage said the state’s drug issue is “too important to let die.”
“I am pleased that we have found the funding to help combat the drug epidemic that is ravaging our state,” he said. “We cannot wait any longer. We must act now to crack down on drug dealers and make our streets safe for Maine families.”
Several procedural steps are required to make the money available.
The State Treasurer’s Office is within the legislative branch, and taking surplus money from the unclaimed-property fund requires legislative approval.
Grant Pennoyer, director of the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office, said that any surplus in the fund won’t be determined until near the end of the fiscal year in June, and may require an analysis by the Maine Revenue Forecasting Committee.
He said it’s not uncommon for the fund to have excess revenue, noting that it had a $4.8 million surplus last year. Such surpluses are sometimes redirected into the state’s rainy day fund, which is used to cover budget shortfalls or other unplanned expenses.
Pennoyer said there’s about $6 million in the unclaimed-property account, which is the annual baseline budget for the account.
Using surplus from the account would be a one-time funding measure, so lawmakers may have to reauthorize the drug enforcement funding next year or come up with another mechanism.
The question is whether the Democratic-controlled Legislature will reconvene the Appropriations Committee to fund the governor’s bill. Thursday is expected to be a busy day at the State House as lawmakers vote on more than 40 bills that the governor has vetoed since the Legislature recessed nearly two weeks ago.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, the Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee, said she expects the panel will review the governor’s proposal but she is unaware of many details. She expressed skepticism about the funding mechanism, which she said would be a one-time fix.
“We’ll meet to talk about it, but I don’t have enough information yet to know where we’ll land,” she said.
Ericka Dodge, spokeswoman for Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said legislative leaders met with LePage administration officials Wednesday afternoon. Dodge said lawmakers needed more information about the proposal before commenting.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has opposed the governor’s drug enforcement bill from the beginning, arguing that it advances a failed war on drugs that increases the rate of incarceration without addressing the root of the drug problem.
Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, released a statement Wednesday urging lawmakers to reject the governor’s last-minute proposal.
“The governor continues to push a proposal that would scale up an already bloated criminal justice system while giving a back seat to more effective treatment programs,” she said. “Plenty has been said about the need for a balanced approach, but this proposal is nothing of the sort. … A truly balanced approach would mean scaling back law enforcement while increasing treatment and prevention.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: