Gov. Paul LePage, seen here at a town hall meeting in Biddeford Tuesday, vetoed a bill designed to help Maine’s financially ailing county jails, including York County Jail. But with unanimous passage in the Senate and a strong 115-32 showing in the House, an override seems likely.

Gov. Paul LePage, seen here at a town hall meeting in Biddeford Tuesday, vetoed a bill designed to help Maine’s financially ailing county jails, including York County Jail. But with unanimous passage in the Senate and a strong 115-32 showing in the House, an override seems likely.

AUGUSTA — Reasoning that if Maine’s counties are responsible for operating the jails, they should also be responsible for funding them, Gov. Paul LePage on Friday vetoed a bill that would provide $2.4 million to Maine’s neediest county jails.

Supporters say they’ll work hard to override the veto of LD 1614, which was approved 115-32 in the House and earned unanimous passage in the Senate.

“It’s disappointing that the governor would veto a solution to a problem he created,” said Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that approved the bill. “This is the only solution to our jail funding crisis that doesn’t involve raising property taxes.

“York County cannot afford the governor’s games. Where is his solution other than saying no? I am confident that the bipartisan work on my committee will hold when it comes up to override the governor’s veto on this bill.” (Editor’s note: Chenette is employed as a digital advertising executive at the Journal Tribune.)

While hard and fast figures on the amount York County Jail would receive under the bill have not been calculated, county officials have used a figure of about $318,000 – money sorely needed to help ease the jail’s deficit, which is projected to be about $700,000 by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

York County Sheriff Bill King on Friday expressed confidence that LePage’s veto would not stand.

“I’m certain there will be an override, because we have to keep the jails afloat,” said King.

Karen Gerrish, R-Lebanon, who is also a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she too will vote to override the veto, but she tempered her position.

If a bill sent to the appropriations committee last year, in which funding was reduced by $2.4 million, would have been fully funded, “we wouldn’t be in this situation now,” she said.

“I will vote to override the veto, but will add, if the counties want control of the county jails with no state input or oversight, then we are going to need a divorce from state funding in the future,” said Gerrish.

If an override bid is successful, the money will be divvied up and awarded to county jails that are most financially strapped through an amendment suggested by Chenette.

If LePage’s veto is sustained, the costs will shift to municipalities and result in increases in taxes, said Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, House chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

“The governor is suggesting that the Legislature should impose a tax shift on to local communities,” Fowle said. “We as a committee and as the representatives of those communities rejected that. I’m urging my colleagues to stand behind this bipartisan solution and override the governor’s veto next week… I hope the (House and Senate) stick with their original vote and understand the issue at hand.”

In 2008, when the Gov. John Baldacci administration introduced a new county-state jail partnership, a figure for operational costs was forged into law for each county, with the provision that the state was to pick up remaining costs.

York County’s tax cap is $8.3 million annually, but its budget is $10 million. A Board of Corrections was established to try and streamline costs, and years later, under the 126th Legislature, more streamlining was approved. At that time, LePage refused to appoint members to fill vacancies on the corrections board, and it eventually dissolved.

During a public hearing on LD 1614, Maine Sheriff ’s Association President Joel Merry said the state appropriation to help operate the county jails has been flat for the past six years.

Last session, the counties were authorized to raise their operational caps by 3 percent, but Gerrish pointed out that only five counties did so, and York County was not among them. York County Manager Greg Zinser said legislative approval of the raise in the cap came too late in the county’s budgeting process.

LePage offered this explanation for his veto in a written statement:

“Currently, county funding for operation of the jails is capped. If counties spend above the cap, which they invariably do, then the State is asked to provide supplemental funding to cover the difference.

“For too long, state taxpayers have had to pick up the tab for the cost of the county jails because, due to the cap, there is no incentive for counties to rein in jail spending.”

LePage said in order to avoid his veto, any bill for supplemental funding must also have a provision for doing away with the county cap.

“This bill does not contain such a provision,” LePage wrote in his veto letter.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]


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