AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage continued pressuring lawmakers this week to quickly hire more drug enforcement agents to help stop the flow of heroin into Maine. At the same time, however, none of the four agents approved by the Legislature in July has yet hit the streets in search of drug dealers.

The head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency said Tuesday that the first of the four drug agents funded by the Legislature on July 1 could be hired by early December.

The delay is not surprising given the MDEA’s hiring process and need for experienced law enforcement officers, MDEA director Roy McKinney said.

However, the lag in bolstering the agency, as well as unfilled jobs for drug prosecutors and drug court judges approved by the Legislature in June, could play into the increasingly political dispute between the Legislature and LePage over how to grapple with the state’s drug epidemic.

The governor said Nov. 5 he wanted 10 additional agents or said he’d call up the Maine National Guard. The governor’s legal ability to deploy the Guard in a law-enforcement capacity is disputed, but LePage has used the ultimatum to press lawmakers to convene for a special session to provide funding for more agents – even though the governor has the authority to call them back himself.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, have said that the governor needs to provide a plan to pay for the agents and describe which of the additional positions funded in July have been filled before they recall legislators for a special session. They also want to know how the governor plans to deploy guardsmen. The Guard is already providing analytical support to the MDEA, but the governor has indicated that it will play a more active role. That has raised concerns from Attorney General Janet Mills and others that doing so could breach a federal law that prevents the Guard from acting in a law-enforcement capacity.

LePage reiterated his ultimatum Monday, setting Dec. 10 as his deadline for the Legislature to provide funding or he’ll call up the Guard.

“On Dec. 10 I’m calling up the National Guard,” LePage told reporters Monday. “They can give me a time specific when they will do something, but they just want to meet and talk. I’m done talking, I’m done meeting.”

On Nov. 13, Eves sent a letter to LePage describing the drug problem as a “public health crisis” while expressing skepticism over the governor’s enforcement plan.

“I understand your desire to address this crisis with more boots on the ground,” wrote Eves, a former family counselor. “But I can tell you from first-hand experience, this crisis will not be solved in the jail cell alone.”

Eves also raised questions about the status of the additional agents, prosecutors and judges funded in the budget that the Legislature passed over the governor’s objections in late June.

“To your knowledge, have all of these positions been filled? What is the status of the new hires?” Eves wrote.

Thibodeau said Tuesday that he and Eves have requested a meeting with the governor for Friday.

“Obviously we want to understand what resources have been expended,” Thibodeau said. “The agents have not come on yet, but hopefully they will soon. It’s the same with the judges. How many of them have been hired? We’re just trying to understand how much we’ve expended versus how much we’ve allocated in the budget so we can figure out what we really need to marshal for resources to fulfill his request.”

He added, “Obviously it’s a negotiation with the Democrats to figure out what it takes to get them on board.”

McKinney said the MDEA has identified three areas to bolster its staffing: York County, Somerset County and Washington County.

One agent in Washington County could be ready to begin work by Dec. 7. Interviews for an additional agent in Somerset County are expected to take place around the same time, McKinney said. He said the hiring process is further behind in York County, where the agency has one supervisor and two full-time agents. Overall, the MDEA funds more than 30 agents across the state, pulling them from local law-enforcement agencies.

McKinney said the MDEA doesn’t conduct direct hiring and instead recruits from local police agencies. The local law-enforcement agencies are then reimbursed by the state and will often use the money to fill the newly vacant law-enforcement position, although local approval is needed to replace the officers.

The goal, he said, is to obtain seasoned cops.

“The most important piece – we’re getting an experienced law-enforcement officer,” he said. “We don’t do a direct hire and have someone come in do drug investigative work. We want them to have work experience and be at the top of their game when they come to MDEA.”

McKinney said that LePage recognizes that the hiring process takes time.

“There is that lag time. We’ve tried to accelerate the process,” he said.

Eves and Thibodeau have indicated that they’re not necessarily opposed to funding more MDEA agents. However, the leaders said they also want the governor to get involved with a comprehensive strategy that provides more funding for treatment and prevention.

LePage has given mixed signals on treatment and prevention, at times arguing that his administration has addressed both and that the drug issue calls for law enforcement. However, on Nov. 5, during an unexpected appearance before the Legislature’s budget committee, the governor indicated that he could back a comprehensive drug strategy.

The governor’s estranged relationship with Legislature appears to be the obstacle. Thibodeau has said that he has asked for several meetings with the governor, but to no avail. Eves and LePage are noted political rivals and both have been at the center of a dispute in which the governor threatened to pull state funding from a private organization for at-risk youths unless it rescinded its job offer to the Democratic leader. Eves in July filed a civil lawsuit against the governor in federal court.