LePage unveils promised initiatives on drug prevention, education accountability and $100 million in budget cuts

The details of three what are sure to be controversial initiatives proposed by Gov. Paul LePage during his State of the State address last month became public Tuesday when they were presented to the Legislature for formal consideration.

Upgrades to the enforcement side of Maine’s war on drugs, a bill to require that high schools pay for college remedial courses and a referendum on tax reform will all be debated in the coming weeks. With a little more than a month left in the legislative session, those conversations will begin sooner than later.

Here are some details on the three bills:

LD 1811, which in shorthand is known as the governor’s drug prevention bill, proposes to spend about $347,000 in the current biennium to bolster the courts and law enforcement agencies to fight drug addiction. The plan calls for the hiring of four new district court judges in Presque Isle, Bangor, Lewiston and Portland who specialize in drug-related criminal cases; 14 new detectives in the Maine Drug Enforcement Agencies and four new assistant attorney generals for the prosecution of drug crimes.

“We must hunt down drug dealers and get them off the streets,” said LePage during the State of the State. “We must protect our citizens from drug-related crimes and violence. We must save our babies from lifelong suffering.”

It’s not clear how this proposal will fare in the Legislature. In addition to the question of how to pay for it, there are some, including Attorney General Janet Mills, who have already voiced concern that the initiative focuses too much on law enforcement and not enough on prevention and treatment. LePage is expected to discuss details of the proposal Tuesday during a late-morning press conference.

The second of the three initiatives unveiled Tuesday is in the education sector. LD 1812, An Act to Reduce the Burden Placed on Students as a Result of Requirements to Take Remedial Courses, would make local school districts liable for the cost of their former students’ remedial courses in the state’s publicly funded higher education system, which includes the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy.

Those organization are already required to report how many students from each of Maine’s public high schools need remedial courses in math and language arts. LePage proposes using that data to reduce school districts’ state subsidies and pay it to the higher education institutions, which in turn must use the money to pay for remedial coursework.

This is a concept that has been floated by LePage before, including during a July 2012 press conference and in last year’s State of the State Address. LePage proposed the concept in a bill he presented last year, LD 1524, which after a unanimous rejection by the Legislature’s Education Committee was placed in legislative files, which essentially killed it.

The third bill unveiled Tuesday could be one that will hit voters at the ballot box. LD 1813, An Act to Hold an Advisory Referendum on Tax Reform, would put a question on the statewide ballot this June that asks voters whether they support reducing government spending and taxes by $100 million. If voters approve of the question, whoever the governor is next year would be required to submit a plan to include the cuts in the 2016-2017 biennial budget proposal.

Opponents of the measure were calling it TABOR III practically while LePage’s voice was still echoing in the House chamber after his State of the State address last month. TABOR, which stands for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, is a concept that has failed twice in statewide votes, three times if you count the 2004 tax cap proposal put forward by Carol Palesky.

Regardless of how LD 1813 fares in the Legislature, it forces lawmakers and the public to confront LePage’s ideology of fiscal conservatism well in advance of the gubernatorial election in November. If the bill is successful and the question goes to the ballot, LePage will score a victory regardless of how the vote goes. If the Legislature rejects it, it will fuel LePage’s argument that his fiscal conservatism is being thwarted by the Democrat-led Legislature.



Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.