Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday that he plans to submit several bills for the current legislative session to address the state’s broken child protection system, instead of waiting to call a special session.

LePage announced his intent in the text of his weekly radio address, which was released by his office Wednesday.

The governor appeared to backtrack from a plea in late July when he called on lawmakers to finish all outstanding business and adjourn so that he could call them back for a special session exclusively to focus on child protection.

But lawmakers have shown no signs that they plan to come back, prompting the governor to criticize them, and Democrats especially, for not addressing two bills he believed were important – one to bring Maine into conformity with the new federal tax law, and another that would make it harder for the elderly to be foreclosed on.

“I had wanted to protect those critical bills from being held hostage in a political battle of wills in the Legislature,” the governor said about his bills to tackle child protective services. “However, we cannot continue to wait while the Democrats dillydally by holding tax conformity hostage so they can get taxpayer-funded Clean Elections money to run their campaigns.

“So I decided to submit several bills that will improve our child welfare programs. I hope that when the legislators come back, they will take the opportunity to pass my two other priorities: tax conformity and reforming the municipal foreclosure process to protect our elderly.”

The governor has not released details of his bills to address problems in Maine’s child protective system, which came under scrutiny after the death of two girls whose families had had contact with the system. Kendall Chick, 4, died last December in Wiscasset while in the care of her grandfather and his fiancée, who has been charged with her murder. In March, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy died in Stockton Springs after what police called prolonged abuse by her mother and stepfather, who have each been charged with murder.

In both cases, warning signs of abuse and neglect were missed.

After Kennedy’s death, Maine’s legislative watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, launched an investigation that is still ongoing. The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the child protective services agency, also launched an internal review.

For weeks, LePage has said he plans to introduce legislation to tighten the child protection system, but he also has said that he wanted to tackle that issue separately in a special session.

Last week, responding to a Maine Sunday Telegram story in which several child protective services caseworkers detailed concerns and said their voices weren’t being heard, the governor said legislation was already being drafted. LePage said he plans to ask for more money for staff training and to upgrade the computer systems. But he said he would not request more money to hire new caseworkers, reversing what his own DHHS commissioner, Ricker Hamilton, said a month earlier.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, said this week that his office is still waiting for drafts of bills to come back from the legislative Revisor’s Office.

With the governor now abandoning his plea for a special session, that could put pressure on lawmakers to come back.

The Legislature has been in recess for several weeks but has not technically adjourned. That means House and Senate leaders can call them back at any point to settle unfinished business.

As the governor alluded to in his weekly address, there has been a stalemate over a couple of issues that has kept lawmakers from returning, including a tax conformity bill that LePage feels strongly about.

“When it comes to conforming state law to the new federal tax code, the Legislature’s delay will likely force people who took tax deductions for medical expenses in 2017 to have to file amended returns,” he said. “Aligning the state to the federal code usually requires minor fixes. But because the federal tax reform was comprehensive, we must make changes in a way that does not increase Mainers’ taxes.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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