March 18, 2013

AG disagrees with LePage over funding shift

From staff reports

A proposal by Gov. Paul LePage to divert $300,000 from the Attorney General's Office to the executive branch may violate state law, according to the state's top lawyer.

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Janet Mills

The governor's $6.3 billion two-year budget proposal includes a measure that cuts by more than 50 percent a relatively obscure spending line in the Attorney General's Office budget. The LePage administration says the money will be used for legal cases in which the attorney general declines to represent the state.

But Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, told the Legislature's budget-writing committee Friday that the budget move may be illegal because it violates a provision of state law that says that the attorney general must represent the state whenever it's involved in a legal proceeding.

The governor's proposal may not go far in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. However, if it passes it would cut into a line in the Attorney General's Office budget that typically pays for expert testimony in homicide cases, computers, telephones and travel stipends for investigators.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage's spokeswoman, said the governor's office needed contingency legal funds if there were ever a time when the attorney general declined to represent the executive branch.

There could be an instance in which LePage, a Republican, and Mills, a Democrat, disagree.

For example, Mills has questioned the constitutionality of the governor's proposal to use a revenue bond to pay back Maine's hospitals $484 million in backlogged Medicaid reimbursements. The LePage administration believes the proposal is legal, although it has introduced an amendment to the hospital plan to address Mills' constitutional concerns.

Bennett said the money would not be diverted to another agency, only to the Office of the Governor. That office includes the Office of Policy Management, a new agency with subpoena and investigative powers that is charged with finding $1 million in savings throughout state government. Former Attorney General William Schneider is on the OPM staff.

DATABASE DIALOGUE

The bill that would permanently shield identifying data on concealed-weapons permits from the public is scheduled for a work session Thursday, after which it should go back to the Legislature for a vote.

Supporters of L.D. 345 have argued that someone who has the names and addresses of permit holders could make that information widely available -- as a New York newspaper did in December when it published an interactive map of everyone in two counties who had a handgun permit.

Interestingly, less attention has been paid to a bill that would actually create a database of all Maine permit holders. That measure, L.D. 189, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, would make the database available only to police, the courts and bail commissioners.

The National Rifle Association opposes it.

Police, however, have said they'd like better access to permit-holder information. With an increase in requests in recent years, there are likely more than 40,000 permits in Maine.

Records of permits exist in different places in the state -- with state police, municipal police departments and town offices in small communities. If police ever need it, it's hard to know where to go.

The state's most influential gun-rights group, the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, will likely oppose Marks' bill, Executive Director David Trahan said.

Trahan said he thinks police should have data, but a statewide database would be costly and duplicative.

"We much prefer the current process," he said. "All that information is in the local communities."

Once debate over the data bill dies down, pro-gun groups' positions on Marks' bill will be important to watch.

EVES BACKS ELDER BILL

House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is throwing his weight behind a proposal that would crack down on people who exploit elders.

Currently, people who criminally or financially exploit the elderly can avoid prosecution if there's evidence that the victim consented to a scam. Advocates for the elderly argue that financial exploitation prosecutions can be impeded by the appearance of consent, particular if given by victims to perpetrators who may be family members or other trusted loved ones.

L.D. 527, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, would require that conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer's are considered in determining whether a victim truly consented to the scam.

Dion, in a news statement, said the bills would make it so "predators of Maine seniors will no longer be able to hide behind the defense of consent."

Other supporters include the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, AARP, Legal Services for the Elderly, the Maine Credit Union and Geoffrey Rushlau, district attorney for Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties.

The public hearing for L.D. 527 was held last week. A work session and potential committee vote is scheduled for Friday.

FANCY HAT

Democrats express a lot of angst and outrage over Le-Page's policies and comments, but they have to admit that the governor has a decent sense of humor.

After several days of political wrangling over a bill that would allow bars to open three hours earlier on St. Patrick's Day, the governor not only agreed to sign the bill, he also donned a festive St. Patrick's Day hat when he did it.

The governor also tweeted a photo of himself wearing the hat.

No word on whether he said "Cheese!" or "Cheers!"

DEEPEST CUT

The public hearings on the governor's $6.3 billion budget proposal continue throughout the week. Monday is expected to be one of the more eventful hearings, as the budget-writing committee digs into the budget's education funding.

The LePage administration says it's essentially flat-funding education from the previous two-year budget. Democrats and the public teachers union say otherwise.

The $512 million earmarked for higher education is pretty much the same amount allocated in the current budget. General Purpose Aid is $895 million, but the amount follows a $12.4 million cut in the current budget.

The governor has directed more than $12 million in additional funding to new initiatives, such as teacher evaluations and the proficiency diploma.

The Maine Education Association says the two-year proposal amounts to a $40 million cut. It is also protesting the governor's plan to make school districts pay 50 percent of teacher retirement costs. The state currently pays 100 percent of retirement costs.

The MEA will hold a news conference Monday prior to the public hearing.

Given the MEA's political involvement last election and the governor's ongoing public relations war with the organization, expect the education element of the budget to be one of the most hotly contested.

GRAND PAVER

The governor will be the guest of honor at the 10th annual Spring Paving Seminar, hosted by the Maine Asphalt Paving Association.

The event at the Augusta Civic Center takes place April 16-17.

LePage is expected to address the conference, but his exact time slot hasn't been announced yet.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

On Twitter: @stevemistler

Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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