AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee on Monday decided it wanted more information from Gov. Paul LePage on his decision to close a state prison in rural Washington County.

The panel agreed to ask corrections officials to appear and respond to questions about the proposed closure.

LePage made his plans known last week when he issued layoff notices to 55 workers at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, a minimum-security prison that houses about 100 low-security inmates who have been convicted of a variety of major felonies and are nearing the end of their incarceration, including some sex offenders, according to lawmakers.

Lawmakers from Washington County also voiced concerns that LePage was “rumored to be commuting the sentences of 75 prisoners” at the facility. LePage’s layoff notices came on the heels of a vote by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee rejecting a state budget proposal by LePage that stripped funding for the prison.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, told fellow members of the Appropriations Committee on Monday that prisoners at the facility knew more about LePage’s plan for the prison than the Legislature did.

Others on the committee, including Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said Martin was dealing in “hearsay.”

However, Martin said he had heard from both prison guards and prisoners that LePage intended to commute sentences for all inmates who had fewer than seven months left to serve on their sentences.

Martin also challenged the secrecy surrounding administrative decisions on the state’s correctional system, saying there should be more public discussion of matters that were now being handled behind “closed doors.”

“The public needs to know,” Martin said.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick wouldn’t address the possibility of commutations last week but said inmates would be relocated to Maine’s other prisons in Windham and Warren.

The co-chairmen of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, and Sen. Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, agreed that the committee could write a letter asking officials from the Department of Corrections and LePage’s administration to come before the committee to answer questions.

But Gattine said he was stopping short of calling for a full public hearing on the matter. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, also noted that a law authorizing a $150 million bond issue approved by lawmakers in 2016 to pay for improvements and an expansion at the state’s prison in Windham also included language establishing a pre-release center in Washington County.

Hamper, meanwhile, warned committee members they needed to remain focused on a nearly $7 billion state budget plan, a draft of which is technically due to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review on Friday.

“Let us not be distracted from the fact we have to get a budget out of here,” Hamper said.

The Legislature needs to enact a budget by June 30 to avoid a state government shutdown. But LePage also has 10 days to decide whether he will sign, veto or allow the budget to go into law without his signature, meaning lawmakers really need to get a budget on LePage’s desk by June 19. It can take as long as week for the Legislature’s Revisor’s Office to actually write the budget law, which frequently exceeds 600 pages.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog