AUGUSTA — Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Monday to increase reimbursement rates for group homes serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities over the protests of Gov. Paul LePage.

Lawmakers approved the rate increase for “direct care” workers while overriding LePage vetoes on two supplemental spending bills that also earmark additional funds for nursing home workers and for opiate addiction treatment programs. In separate votes, both chambers of the Legislature also opted to provide $6 million more in state funds to address shortfalls at the county jails and to require utility shareholders to pick up the tabs for the types of audits currently underway into unexplained price spikes.

But LePage successfully blocked 23 of the 43 bills that he vetoed, including measures to provide start-up funding to expand Medicaid coverage, to prohibit “conversion therapy” for gay or transgendered minors and to reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility.

DIRECT CARE WORKERS

State legislators voted unanimously – 32-0 in the Senate and 143-0 in the House – to overturn LePage’s veto of the bill that would increase MaineCare reimbursement rates for direct care workers to the equivalent of $11 an hour. Supporters said the increase was necessary to avert a crisis in group homes serving an estimated 4,000 clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Lawmakers partially funded an increase last summer – the first rate hike in years – to help group homes compete for workers after Mainers voted to increase the minimum wage. But without legislative action this year, many workers faced a 12 percent pay cut to $9.17 an hour.

That left group homes with the challenge of finding additional money to lift those wages to the current $10-an-hour minimum wage. Advocates said some homes likely would have to reduce services, while others could close.

“We’re very excited,” said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Progress Center in Norway and president of the board of the Maine Association for Community Services Providers. “Our services were in a crisis and with this funding, so many of us will be able to continue providing services to individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism across the state.”

In his veto message to lawmakers, LePage said he agreed that “rate changes are necessary to attract and keep quality workers” to care for some of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens. But LePage vetoed the bill along with another one that provided reimbursement rate increases to nursing home workers and others to reiterate his opposition to the annual minimum wage increases he claims are contributing to a tight labor market.

There was no debate prior to the 143-0 vote in the House.

“Protecting vital services for Mainers with developmental disabilities and autism was my No. 1 priority when we convened for the current special session,” House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, said following the vote. “The state should not be in the business of deciding which of our loved ones receive the care they need. That’s why I’m so glad we finally made good on our promise. Without this measure, group homes across the state would have been in danger of closing their doors and more families would have to wait for the services they desperately need.”

JAIL FUNDING

Lawmakers also voted by wide margins to overturn a LePage veto to provide more than $6 million to county jails. Continuing the long-running debate over jail funding and oversight, LePage had cast the bill, L.D. 1490, as another bailout of county jails “that continue to lack financial oversight, allowing for runaway budgets and unaccounted-for expenses year after year.”

But county sheriffs warned that jails were looking at reducing already “precariously low staffing levels,” cutting programs aimed at recidivism rates or even closing jails because of inadequate funding.

Rep. Aaron Frey, a Bangor Democrat who serves on the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said county jails are already having to hold inmates longer because of policies enacted by the Legislature.

“We have historically provided up to $15 million to the county jails, and just two years ago we provided that amount,” Frey said. “This bill here get us to where we have committed to be in the past with one-time money from a pot of money that is not being spent.”

CONVERSION THERAPY

Advocates for Maine’s LGBTQ community were unsuccessful, however, in their push to make Maine the 14th state to prohibit the practice of “conversion therapy.”

The bill, L.D. 912, would have prohibited state-licensed therapists and counselors from engaging in conversion therapy that “seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity … (or) gender expression or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”

In his veto letter last week, LePage called the bill “bad public policy” because the broad definition could prevent professionals from answering clients’ questions or having conversations with them. But supporters, including licensed counselor Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, said nothing in the bill would prevent her from having conversations with underage clients struggling with their own sexual orientation or gender identity. What it would prohibit, Madigan said, are practices that professional psychiatric and counseling associations say are potentially harmful to minors.

It was clear before Monday’s vote that the bill’s backers likely lacked the support needed to override LePage in both the House and the Senate. Rep. Matt Moonen, a Portland Democrat who is executive director of EqualityMaine, said his message to LGBTQ young people watching that “Love wins in the end. And if love didn’t win then it isn’t the end and we will be back.”

The bill failed to achieve a two-thirds majority on a 79-61 vote.

OTHER OUTCOMES

In other veto-related action, lawmakers:

n Upheld LePage’s veto of L.D. 1704 that would have funded the Downeast Correctional Facility for another year, meaning the minimum-security prison in Machiasport will remain shuttered. A separate bill would provide early retirement benefits to some Downeast Correctional workers who lost their jobs.

n Overturned the governor’s veto of L.D. 8 that will provide firearms training to Maine forest rangers to allow them to carry guns while on the job, ending years of debate on the issue.

n Overturned a LePage veto of L.D. 1190 that prevents the state from revoking a person’s driver’s license for failing to pay fines for non-moving vehicle violations.

n Upheld a veto of L.D. 1711 that would have created a pilot project to offer housing and opioid treatment to homeless individuals.

n Upheld a veto of L.D. 1884 that would have allowed the courts to order individuals to give up their firearms temporarily when they were ordered to participate in outpatient mental health treatment.

n Overturned a veto of a bill to provide $75,000 in state funding for needle exchange programs, aimed at protecting against the spread of needle-borne diseases such as hepatitis C among drug users.

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

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