AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers have proposed amending an emergency funding bill to provide about $2.2 million to five Maine county jails that face significant budget deficits.

The proposal was introduced Tuesday afternoon during a public hearing on one of several supplemental budget bills submitted by Gov. Paul LePage.

Five jails, including the Cumberland County Jail, are on course to run out of operating funds before the fiscal year ends June 30.

Jail administrators and the Maine Board of Corrections, which oversees county jails, appealed for additional funding in January, but LePage has said he will not release more money unless the state takes over jail operations or the control is returned to county governments.

To force a change, the governor has also refused to nominate members to fill vacancies on the Board of Corrections, which he says is ineffective and unaccountable. The board doesn’t have enough members now to form a quorum, so it has no authority to make changes to the jail system or authorize spending if the Legislature approves an emergency bill.

The amendment introduced Tuesday by Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, would allow the governor to appoint an independent “receiver” to allocate the funding to jails.

Democrats were critical of the plan, noting that LePage already has the power to nominate members to the Board of Corrections.

“This is a manufactured crisis,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. “We wouldn’t have to do this if the governor simply followed the current law.”

The new proposal would temporarily broaden the governor’s authority over the jails. The receiver would assume powers and duties above those of the current Board of Corrections and decide which jails receive funding and how much.

Despite concerns about the language of the proposal and its broadening of authority the governor already has, Democrats and Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee expressed a measure of support for it.

Rotundo said the jail deficits are “a very serious issue.”

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the proposal would be a temporary fix, and that future governance of the county jails is likely to change.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said LePage’s position on the Board of Corrections has not changed.

Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, said the governor was supportive of the proposal Tuesday.

However, Bennett said the governor is reserving judgment until he sees the final product from the budget committee.

At stake is emergency funding for the five jails with deficits. In January, Ryan Thornell, outgoing director of the Board of Corrections, said Cumberland County needs $596,000 to continue operations. Aroostook County needs $782,000, Penobscot County needs $563,000, York County needs $396,000, and Androscoggin County needs $151,000.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce sent a letter to other sheriffs last week alerting them that, starting Feb. 23, the Cumberland County Jail will no longer take inmates from other counties, and the 76 inmates it now houses from elsewhere in the state will be returned to the counties that sent them.

Joyce told lawmakers Tuesday that he supports the Republicans’ proposal, as did Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, one of two remaining members of the corrections board. Merry said he is disappointed that the situation has come to this point. He defended the work of the corrections board and its funding request.

Lawmakers will have to reconcile the $2.2 million in funding sought in the amendment and the request from the jails.

Merry told lawmakers that the jails need $2.5 million to get through the fiscal year. He said that the number is a conservative estimate.

“I’d like to think that there’s enough trust in the work at the Board of Corrections,” he said. “Those numbers were based on sound projections and a lot of work.”

The budget committee will hold a work session on the amendment and the larger funding bill to which it is attached on Friday.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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