The bill faces at least one more Senate vote and would have the state provide $14.7 million.

AUGUSTA — Both chambers of the Legislature have endorsed a bill that would return control of Maine’s county jails to county governments while continuing to provide state funding to the facilities.

The House voted 131-14 on Tuesday morning to support a bill that would undo a 2008 jail consolidation law that established the State Board of Corrections to oversee and improve coordination among county jails. The bill faces at least one additional vote in the Senate, but first must be reviewed by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.

The Legislature strengthened the corrections board last year, but Gov. Paul LePage – a vocal critic of the way jails are now run – rendered the board inoperable by refusing to fill vacant seats.

The bill, L.D. 186, would remand control of the jails to the counties beginning July 1 by transferring funding from the treasury to a County Jail Operations Fund each month, rather than to the State Board of Corrections. The measure would provide $14.7 million in state funding to the operations fund, while counties would collect $62 million from municipalities for the jails – the same amount collected last year.

“This is the best path forward,” said Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, a member of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, which worked on the issue for much of the legislative session. “It keeps our county jails going.”

If the state failed to provide its share of funding, county jails would be allowed to charge up to $108 per day for each “boarded” inmate who was transferred from another jail or prison. Boarding rates have been a point of contention in the jail funding debate, and emerged again Tuesday when lawmakers tried to amend L.D. 186 to allow jails to charge up to $108 even when the state is providing the full $14.7 million in funding to the jails.

But Rep. Lori Fowle, a Democrat from Vassalboro who co-chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, said the amendment would allow some jails to engage in “double dipping” by collecting their full share from the state while charging either the state or other jurisdictions to house transferred inmates. The amendment was killed on an 86-60 vote.

Early this year, LePage elevated the debate over control of the jails when he refused to nominate new members to the State Board of Corrections, preventing the five-member board from achieving a quorum to exercise its authority. LePage said he did not have a strong preference about whether the state or the counties controlled the jails, but he argued the current system is wasting taxpayer money.

“I don’t care who runs it,” LePage said in January. “I don’t care if it comes back to the county, I don’t care if it’s (run by) the state. But you cannot have two bosses.”

The bill appeared headed for passage Tuesday night as lawmakers worked to complete work on legislation still pending. But the measure was sent to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee for review because of the $14.7 million impact on the state budget, meaning the Senate is likely to take the bill up on June 30 when lawmakers return to consider additional vetoes from the governor.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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