Republicans pressuring Democrats to approve LePage’s new mental health facility

Good morning from Augusta, where Republicans are increasing the pressure on Democratic leaders to reverse last week’s decision to block Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed facilty to house forensic mental health patients in Augusta.

The LePage administration has billed the new facility as a way to regain the federal certification that Riverview Psychiatric Center lost in 2013, putting millions of dollars in funding at risk.

Last year, the Republican governor proposed moving violent patients to a 32-bed unit at the Maine State Prison, but it was rejected in the Maine Legislature amid concerns that it would violate the settlement of a 1989 lawsuit by patients against the state.

After that, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services turned its focus to building a new facility next to Riverview Psychiatric Center on Augusta’s east side using internal funds without legislative approval at a cost of between $3 million and $5 million.

But lawmakers discovered a little-known provision in state law that gives the Legislative Council, a 10-member panel of legislative leaders, authority to approve new construction on state complexes in Augusta. Democrats on the evenly divided panel rejected it last week, saying they didn’t have enough information.

As a result, LePage said he’d simply build the facility off state grounds, saying Freeport — the home of House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat — was being considered. However, Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph said he never heard from the administration and LePage told WGAN he couldn’t move it there on Thursday.

On Thursday, Republicans will up the ante, with House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, holding a news conference with DHHS officials on the facility. That’s ahead of a 1:30 p.m. meeting of the Legislative Council.

The issue isn’t on the agenda, but a spokeswoman for Gideon said it could come up during the meeting, so we may learn more about a way forward.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, was optimistic about that in his appearance on WGAN on Thursday, saying “if we take time to communicate just a litte bit, we’ll probably find a solution to the problem.” — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Maine environmental groups are opposing President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Republican’s nominee will be Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has fought the Obama administration on curbing emissions from coal-fired power plants and other environmental measures. The Natural Resources Council of Maine urged U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and independent Angus King to reject Pruitt, calling him “an anti-science, anti-environment ideologue.” Maine Conservation Voters followed suit, saying Pruitt running the EPA “is like the fox guarding the hen house.”
  • Collins and King announced a $59 million contract modification between Bath Iron Works and the U.S. Navy on Tuesday. The money will be used to provide engineering and technical assistance for the construction of new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The first one built by the shipyard since the class was restarted left Bath for sea trials in October and the Navy awarded funding to BIW for a new destroyer in March.
  • The Maine Ethics Commission will meet on Thursday to discuss proposed legislation that would increase transparency around big donors to state campaigns. Commission staff has proposed a law that would require out-of-state groups that spent at least $100,000 in Maine to disclose their top five donors and other information. It would have to be approved by the Legislature. Commissioners will also consider a number of minor potential election law violations from the 2016 campaign. One is against the Maine Democratic Party for not naming its top three donors in a TV ad. — Michael Shepherd

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.