A bipartisan bill to hire more drug agents and expand substance abuse treatment programs took a tentative step forward Tuesday in the Legislature, advancing on a 9-4 vote that again raised questions about whether the bill can muster enough support to reach the governor’s desk, much less survive a veto.

Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee voted to endorse a $4.9 million bill that would fund 10 additional investigator positions within the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and direct the state to open a drug detoxification facility in northern or eastern Maine.

The legislation also seeks to fund projects run by jails or local law enforcement agencies to help drug users connect with community-based treatment and recovery programs.

“This package is a down payment on our commitment to fighting the state’s devastating, deadly drug addiction crisis,” committee member Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said in a written statement. “Democrats and Republicans alike came together on the Appropriations Committee to make sure our state took this important first step. We hear a lot about how divided we are in the Legislature, but on this issue, we are united.”

However, like two other legislative committees that reviewed the bill, there was no consensus. The committee’s four House Republican members supported their version of the bill, with the key difference being how to pay for the proposal.

House Republicans want to tap into the Fund for a Healthy Maine – an anti-smoking fund established with Maine’s share of a 1998 legal settlement with tobacco companies – while Democrats and the two Republican senators on the committee want to draw funds from another court settlement overseen by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, told committee members that he and his colleagues don’t believe the Legislature should set a precedent and “break into that lockbox” unless it intends to transfer all of the funds in the attorney general’s account into the General Fund. By contrast, Timberlake said, “there is plenty of money in the Fund for a Healthy Maine.”

Afterward, House Republicans highlighted their alternative funding plan.

“There should be no argument with using the Fund for a Healthy Maine to help us fight this public health crisis,” said Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway. “Drug addiction treatment meets the criteria for how the Fund for a Healthy Maine funds are to be disbursed. This money is unallocated, and this one-time transfer of funds will have no effect on the viability of the Fund for a Healthy Maine or any of the Healthy Maine Partnerships.”

However, the Republican proposal is likely to be a non-starter with Democratic lawmakers, who have consistently fought to protect the programs financed through the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

Addressing Maine’s growing opiate crisis is among the top priorities for legislative leaders from both political parties as well as for the administration of Gov. Paul LePage. But less than one week into the legislative session, it is clear that the lack of consensus on how to address the issue could scuttle the bill, L.D. 1537, which is sponsored by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.

The sponsors will need to pick up support from some House Republicans in order to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to pass an “emergency measure.” Two-thirds majorities are also needed to override a gubernatorial veto. However, the past several legislative sessions have proven that achieving a two-thirds vote in both chambers on passage does not guarantee a bill will become law. On several occasions, some members of the House Republican caucus have changed their positions to side with the governor on a veto override vote.

LePage had repeatedly threatened to call up the National Guard to fight drug traffickers bringing heroin into Maine unless lawmakers provided him with more funding for drug agents. But last week, just as lawmakers began considering the bill to hire 10 agents, the governor’s public safety commissioner told lawmakers that the administration no longer needed the funding because it had tapped reserves within the Gambling Control Board.

LePage also threatened to veto the bill because it specifically named the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs as the recipient of funds to provide statewide services on drug treatment and recovery. Lawmakers have since deleted the reference to the specific program and instead required the state to solicit bids from organizations interested in providing the services.

The measure is now headed to the Senate for a preliminary vote as early as Thursday, to be followed by additional votes in both legislative chambers.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH


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