AUGUSTA — Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau said Monday that legislative leaders are still working on a comprehensive plan to address Maine’s ongoing drug addiction epidemic, and he is hopeful they will reach an agreement this week.

Thibodeau told reporters that leaders have been discussing a bill that would provide additional treatment and prevention funding while also adding 10 agents to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Gov. Paul LePage has made the additional MDEA agents the focus of his drug strategy and last month set a deadline of Dec. 10 for lawmakers to draft a plan to fund them or, he said, he would deploy the Maine National Guard. The governor’s ability to use the National Guard in a law enforcement capacity is disputed, but Thibodeau said he was hopeful that lawmakers will have an agreement before governor’s deadline Thursday and that public hearings could be held on the proposal this month.

The hearings would set up the possibility that the Legislature could vote on the proposal when members return for the second regular session, which begins in January.

“We had a productive conversation,” Thibodeau said. “While there’s no commitments, I think it was productive and we talked about the process and how it would happen.”

Legislative leaders met with members of the LePage administration in November to discuss ways to tackle Maine’s drug epidemic. The meeting ended without any breakthrough deal, and each side was still seeking assurances that the other will back its preferred approach.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and other leaders have sought to ensure that the governor will back a comprehensive approach that includes expanded treatment capacity for addicts. Thibodeau, of Winterport, has also expressed support for a comprehensive strategy. Now, he said, leaders need to hash out the details, including how much money the state can allocate to the initiative.

Meanwhile, the governor has appeared to soften his vow to use the National Guard if lawmakers don’t act. Early in November he indicated that he’d use guard members in a law enforcement capacity if the Legislature doesn’t fund additional MDEA agents. However, after members of his Cabinet met with lawmakers on Nov. 20, he sent a letter indicating that he sought a commitment from lawmakers to fund new agents.

“You can determine the timeline for funding the new agents,” LePage wrote. “I just need to know you are serious about funding these positions out of the gate when you return in January 2016. If we can work together to address treatment and prevention needs in that timeframe and agree on a comprehensive piece of legislation, great. But in the meantime, I am asking you once again to commit to funding 10 new drug agents – even in a stand-alone bill, if necessary.”

Thibodeau said Monday that he believes legislative leaders are willing to fund the 10 additional agents.

The National Guard is now assisting Maine State Police with intelligence analysis. Attorney General Janet Mills has said that putting guard members in law enforcement roles could be a breach of federal law.

Eves said in November that he doubted that LePage would deploy the guard in any additional capacity than it is currently operating in.

“I don’t think the National Guard is going to be called and I don’t think we’re going to have a special (legislative) session. What I do know is that on Day 1 (of the next session) we’re going to be ready with a comprehensive plan that invests in law enforcement, … but also that we’re providing treatment options for those that have been caught up in this insidious addiction,” Eves said in November.

Lawmakers and the governor have previously exchanged criticism about their responses to a drug problem that has moved into Maine and many other states. Efforts to reach an agreement have been hampered by the poor relationship between the governor and legislative leaders.

Lawmakers are set to review nearly a half-dozen drug-related bills next session. The proposals include providing additional treatment services for addicts, increasing drug education in public schools, increasing fines for interstate drug trafficking convictions, increasing state reimbursement rates to treatment centers, and a pilot program designed to divert those arrested for drug possession into treatment programs.

It’s unclear if any of those bills will become part of the package lawmakers are currently drafting.

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

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