Just about everyone at the Maine State House says they want a new mental health unit proposed by Gov. Paul LePage to be built in Augusta.
But even though Democrats say they’re optimistic a deal can be reached to build it by January, they aren’t moving fast enough for the Republican’s administration.
The LePage administration has floated building a new, 22-bed building on the grounds of Riverview Psychiatric Center at a cost of between $3 million and $5 million to house forensic patients — those deemed not guilty of criminal acts or unfit for trial.
It’s part of a bid to win back Riverview’s federal certification, which was lost in 2013 for a host of issues, including the presence of sheriff’s deputies who used stun guns and handcuffs to restrain violent patients and alleviate what officials said is a seven-day waiting period to get into the 92-bed Riverview.
Earlier this year, the Republican governor proposed moving violent patients to a unit at the Maine State Prison, but it was rejected by the Legislature amid concerns that it would violate the settlement of a 1989 lawsuit by patients against the state.
Now, the administration is trying to build it without legislative approval with funding from within the Department of Health and Human Services budget. But last week, Democrats on the Legislative Council — the evenly divided 10-member panel of legislative leaders — voted against allowing it to be built and said they didn’t have enough information about the facility.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, called a news conference ahead of another Legislative Council meeting on Thursday, saying Democrats are putting obstruction of LePage “ahead of the safety of staff and patients at Riverview.”
He pushed to add the issue to the agenda again at Thursday’s meeting, but Republicans and Democrats deadlocked in a 5-5 vote.
Before the meeting, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said her party wants the facility built in Augusta and is “willing to do this as quickly as possible between now and the middle of January” after questions are answered about how the facility will be run.
“Is it urgent that we do something? It is,” Gideon said. “But is it important that we do it in the right way? It also is.”
Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he met with administration officials on Thursday and got some information. But he called it “wicked unfair for the new council to be asked to handle it today,” though he said a deal could be reached “very quickly.”
But Ricker Hamilton, the deputy commissioner of programs at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said though the department is “willing to keep talking,” he wasn’t optimistic about the Democrats’ stated timeframe.
“Sure,” he said. “And then it will be February.”