AUGUSTA — A 3-3 party-line vote Wednesday by lawmakers on the Legislative Council essentially killed a bid by the LePage administration to build a new $3.5 million mental health facility next to the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center.

The administration was proposing the new 21-bed, secure facility to treat so-called forensic patients who have been deemed by the courts to be either incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible for their actions. Officials say it’s the best way to free up space and alleviate safety issues that have plagued Riverview, a 92-bed psychiatric hospital managed by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The Legislative Council, composed of political party caucus leaders, the speaker of the House and the Senate president, sets the rules for the Legislature and oversees buildings on state grounds in Augusta. An obscure law requires that the council approve all new construction on a portion of state grounds known as the “Capitol Area,” which includes the Riverview campus. The law was brought to the administration’s attention by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat.

LEPAGE: DEMOCRATS OBSTRUCT PLAN

Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement Wednesday saying the administration would simply move the project outside of the Capitol Area.

“My administration has been working for years to regain federal certification of Riverview Psychiatric Center, and Democrats in the Legislature have opposed virtually every effort we have made,” LePage said. “They just don’t care about Mainers with mental health issues.

“Fortunately, we have made progress with minimal help from the Legislature. We are not going to let people with mental illness languish for years. We will simply build the step-down facility outside of the Capitol Area and out of the jurisdiction of Democrats on the Legislative Council.”

Moving the project likely would delay construction for months and add to the project’s final cost.

With only half of the 12-member council present for its final meeting before the new legislative session, a unanimous vote of those present was needed to either table the request or move it forward. But neither side was willing to change their position after a heated discussion, with Democrats saying the public had a right to offer input on the facility and Republicans saying the proposal already had been reviewed and approved in October by local officials on the Augusta Planning Board.

Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who is expected to be the next speaker of the House, said a public hearing before the Legislature was necessary to not only protect the state’s resources, but also to protect the rights of the Maine citizens who would be housed in the facility.

“The most important thing is we all recognize that we are in a crisis situation, and have been operating in a crisis situation in regards to Riverview, and we want to find a solution,” Gideon said. “The problem is the (DHHS) and the administration is trying to do this without public input and without input from the committees of jurisdiction.”

DEMOCRAT SLAMS DHHS OFFICIAL

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee has jurisdiction over DHHS, and the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee holds jurisdiction over state spending matters. During the council hearing, Gideon took DHHS Deputy Commissioner Ricker Hamilton to task for not providing information to the Legislature earlier this year when it was requested.

Republican leaders and Le- Page said Democrats are playing politics with an issue that the state has been wrestling with for years, and that instead of approving the construction they were delaying it to make the governor look bad.

“This has been an ongoing conversation for four years now,” said Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport. DHHS is proposing to pay for the facility with existing resources, but Democrats said it remains unclear where those funds are coming from or how the state intends to pay for operating a new facility.

Fredette also detailed some of about 30 other projects that were completed in the Capitol Area without being approved by the Legislative Council, suggesting the law had been re-interpreted to stymie LePage.

Fredette said the council could have voted to move the project forward while allowing DHHS to come before the Legislature and explain the funding details.

“I think this was purely political, obstructionist and continuing to fight Paul LePage,” Fredette said. “But it’s not fighting Paul LePage in the end, it’s about doing the right thing for the people of Maine and that’s where I don’t understand this vote.”

Attorney General Mills said in a written statement that there was no “new interpretation” of the law on the part of her office.

“The fact that the administration has ignored the plain language of the statute in the past does not excuse their ignoring the rightful oversight of the legislative branch in major projects of this sort that have potentially great financial implications to the taxpayers,” she said. “The Attorney General’s Office learned about the plan to initiate this new construction in the Capitol Planning Area only after the department announced it to the press. We quickly reminded the Bureau of General Services and the Department of Health and Human Services of this statute (enacted in 1981).”

PUSH TO GET RIVERVIEW RECERTIFIED

The administration’s proposal for the new building, which it has said would be operated by a private contractor, is part of a DHHS effort to regain federal certification for Riverview and the $20 million annual funding reimbursement that comes with it. Riverview and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor are the two state-run psychiatric hospitals in Maine.

The federal agency that oversees Riverview funding revoked the hospital’s certification in 2013 after regulators found many problems during an audit, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients, improper record-keeping, medication errors and failure to report progress made by patients. That agency, the Center for Medicaid Services, also determined that Riverview was improperly commingling patients who needed intense hospital treatment with those who no longer required hospitalization.

Gideon said that beyond the need for a proper public vetting of the proposal, lawmakers had a responsibility to those who could be housed at the new facility.

“There are really important questions that affect vulnerable people’s lives, people who are not able to advocate for themselves, and we feel like it is essential that those people and their advocates are able to weigh in and that lawmakers are able to weigh in,” she said.

A CALL FOR MORE INFORMATION

Gideon said Democrats only wanted to delay until public hearings could be held in January, and they were willing to work with LePage and his administration but wanted that process to be open and public.

“And that finally the department comes in front of the Health and Human Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee and answers the questions that have been asked in the past and not answered,” Gideon said. She said if that happens, she will help to expedite the process and would even sponsor a bill from LePage to move the step-down facility forward.

The meeting Wednesday was the last of the outgoing Legislative Council, which will be replaced by a new council when the Legislature takes office next week. A number of the same lawmakers, including Gideon and Fredette, will retain seats on the new council.