Daily Brief: Corrections commissioner cracks down on jails hours after bill’s passage

Good morning from Augusta, where there is little on the legislative docket today as lawmakers wrap up their winter break. Committees resume on Monday with a series of public hearing scheduled by the Appropriations Committee and others. But more on that in your Monday State & Capitol Daily Brief, which in case you didn’t know by now can be sent directly to your email inbox at a few minutes past 8 a.m. every weekday. 

Just because the halls of the State House will be relatively quiet doesn’t mean there will be no action in Augusta. The Maine Education Association, the labor union that represents the state’s teachers, will hold a press conference later this morning about Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal. LePage and the MEA see eye to eye on very little and the union, which doubles as a powerful lobbying force in Augusta, has been mostly against LePage’s education agenda since he took office. 

The LePage administration has been arguing correctly that state appropriations for education are proposed to go up slightly in the next two years, but the budget basically flat-funds K-12 public education while requiring towns and cities to raise more at the local level before state funding fully kicks in. The MEA is expected to make an argument that we’ll be hearing for months: As austere as the budget for the next two years is, the two years after that will be even leaner if LePage’s proposal to reduce the income tax becomes reality. 

LePage has been unapologetic to the MEA or local schools and part of his cost-cutting strategy is to lower taxes at all levels by forcing municipalities to cut spending by trimming and consolidating local services. Educators and municipal leaders, who have been tightening their fiscal belts since the 2008 financial meltdown, argue that there’s little left to cut without carving into programs and services. 

This will be quite a fight. — Christopher Cousins

LePage family tree has a branch in Connecticut

The Hartford Courant reports that LePage is scheduled to headline Bristol, Connecticut’s Lincoln Day Dinner on March 26. The tradition among Connecticut Republicans dates back to 1860 when then-President Abraham Lincoln made an impromptu tour through the state to campaign against slavery and in favor of Connecticut Republicans.

That’s the interesting part if you’re a history buff. Here’s the interesting part if you’re a political buff:

According to the Courant, LePage’s wife, Ann LePage, is a first cousin to Roxanne Martin, who is married to Republican Connecticut state Sen. Henri Martin of Bristol.

The Lincoln Day Dinner will be held at a restaurant called Nuchies in Bristol. Tickets are $50. — Christopher Cousins

Ranked choice voting advocates gearing up for intense campaign

The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which conducted a successful petition drive that will force a statewide referendum on the issue this year or next, is taking steps not unlike a major political candidate would take in the run-up to an election.

The committee announced Thursday that it has rented space in Westbrook’s historic Dana Warp Mill building on the banks of the Presumpscot River. The office will serves as the committee’s headquarters from which it hopes to train a volunteer army of at least 1,000 door-knockers by the end of this year. If successful, the drive would drastically change the way we elect state officials in Maine, allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Ballot counters would resort to lower-preference votes in rounds of counts that would eventually lead to an at least 50 percent majority for a single candidate.

The political action committee has registered with the Maine Ethics Commission and reported nearly $60,000 in donations in 2014, according to its latest report, including about $6,300 in the fourth quarter. Most of the donations listed on the latest report were relatively small amounts given by individuals from Maine and other states.

Some of the group’s larger donations were received late last year during the scramble to collect signatures. They included $4,000 from Cara McCormick of Cape Elizabeth, who is the committee’s treasurer; $20,000 from The Chamberlain Project PAC of South Portland; $5,000 from William Hastings of Falmouth; $1,500 from Ronald Bancroft of Cumberland Center; $10,000 from Horace Hildreth Jr. of Falmouth; and $1,500 from Thomas Platz of Auburn.

In addition to the cash rolling in, the committee has momentum in terms of support. It collected the signatures it needed to force the referendum — well more than 60,000 — in about 10 weeks beginning on Election Day 2014. — Christopher Cousins

DOC chief intervenes on county jail problem

On Feb. 13, the Legislature and Gov. LePage enacted a bill that essentially cut the state’s Board of Corrections out of the oversight of county jails, at least until the end of the fiscal year, and provided about $2.5 million in emergency funding. The bill appointed the Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick or his designee to oversee the disbursement of the money and other matters.

Later that day, Fitzpatrick sent a letter to county sheriffs, urging their cooperation on sharing bed space — i.e., jails with fewer prisoners accepting prisoners from other counties — which has been a source of conflict among the jails for years.

“It seems to be challenging for some counties to cooperatively collaborate around the use of available beds within the county jail system,” wrote Fitzpatrick. “It has also come to my attention that recently, some counties are requesting the removal of inmates sent to them by other county jails due to a lack of bed space at the sending facility. … I do not believe the county system has a lack of bed space; however, there does appear to be a lack of cooperation amongst some counties.”

Fitzpatrick called for a meeting of sheriffs and jail officials, but only if all of them would come to the bargaining table. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Prone to amendments

Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, comes from the part of Maine that has a lot of snow. That’s a relative term in a year such as this, but Washington County is verifiably buried to the record-breaking point.

Speaking of breaking points, the students of Washington County might be at theirs sometime in June when they’re still making up snow days.

Tuell, a freshman lawmaker, has sponsored a bill to avoid that by allowing schools to add an extra hour to their days now in order to trim full days from the end of the year.

The Legislature would be wise to move quickly on this bill as the snow continues to pile up (there’s more in the forecast for this weekend and next Wednesday!) so schools can take full advantage.

And Tuell would be wise to keep his amendment pen at the ready. At this rate, schools might have to consider adding two hours a day if they want to be in summer vacation by Independence Day. — Christopher Cousins

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.