LePage rips GOP state senator over prison closure dispute

Gov. Paul LePage claimed Tuesday that members of the Legislature are reneging on a deal regarding the closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, but didn’t provide many details.

Noting that state government sends more aid to Washington County than it receives in revenue from Down East, LePage said during a radio interview Tuesday morning that he has pledged to work with lawmakers and local officials to offset any economic harm that would result from closing the prison.

He said he’s worked with them on “paper company jobs” and to bolster the push to make the University of Maine’s Machias branch a marine science hub, but that the Washington County prison needs to go because of poor conditions there and a high per-prisoner cost than at the maximum-security prison in Warren.

“It’s not fit to live in,” said LePage. “I would not eat out of that kitchen up there. It’s a very bad place and we are going to close it. Nobody said it’s going to be done overnight.”

That’s in contrast with what multiple lawmakers said the LePage administration told them last week, including perhaps his closest legislative ally, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. Fredette and others said LePage wants to fund the prison for at least another nine months. Finance Commissioner Richard Rosen told the Bangor Daily News that the decision regarding the prison is a “work in progress.”

LePage aimed his criticism Tuesday at Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who introduced a resolution last week that would force the Department of Corrections to come up with a plan and money to keep the prison open for two more years. The bill was supported with a 30-3 vote in the Senate on Wednesday and a unanimous endorsement in the House on Thursday, though the resolution faces more votes before being sent to LePage.

“Joyce Maker is not helping anything and it’s end of story,” said LePage. “It is our full intention to close the prison in Down East Maine. It is an outlier. The people in Washington County and the delegation in Washington County are reneging on their agreement with me. … Shame on them.”

Maker told reporters last week that the prison is not in as poor a condition as LePage claims it is in.

“That’s what the chief executive is stating and it’s absolutely not true,” she said. “I’ve been through them. They’re not falling down. … They’ve been working hard to bring them up to date.”

Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, also has lobbied hard to keep open the correctional facility.

On Tuesday, LePage repeated an earlier assertion from his office that a plan to commute a number of sentences is about a system-wide program to transition low-risk inmates to jobs and not exclusively connected to his plan to close the facility in Machiasport. He said Maker was wrong to try to link the conditional commutations to the Downeast closure plan.

“They have to go to work,” said LePage of any inmates released from prison early. “If they refuse to go to work, they don’t even qualify.”

On another topic, the resignation last week of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, LePage thanked Mayhew for her work but would not speculate whether Mayhew intends to run for governor, as she has long been rumored to be considering.

“She is going to be missed,” said LePage. “She has done just a superhuman job in that department. … Do I think she plans to run? I am not going to answer that.”

However, LePage said he believes Mayhew would make “a terrific governor.”  — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • A longtime Democratic lobbyist says she’ll file to run for governor today. Betsy Sweet of Hallowell said in a Tuesday morning text message that she’ll file to run for governor today after a Facebook page for her candidacy popped up last week. She’ll be the third Democrat to declare a 2018 run after Sanford attorney Adam Cote and Patrick Eisenhart of Augusta. Sweet is a longtime progressive activist who founded Moose Ridge Associates, a lobbying firm, in 1990. Cote is the likely primary front-runner so far, but several other Democrats are considering runs, including Attorney General Janet Mills. — Michael Shepherd
  • A former Obama official will discuss health care in Bangor tonight. Tim Gronniger, who was chief of staff and director of delivery system reform at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under former President Barack Obama, will talk about House Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act at the Bangor Public Library tonight at 6:30 p.m. It’s part of a national tour from Organizing for Action, the Obama-linked advocacy group. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

The House and Senate calendars are where most of the action is today and probably for the coming days, at least until the Appropriations Committee forges the final details of a budget deal.

We told you on Friday that votes were possible over the weekend, but there were none. We’re expecting final votes as soon as this week, but negotiations are sensitive and target dates are ever-moving. Here’s your soundtrack.

On the calendars today, the split majorities in the Legislature are like a scythe through piles of bills that are dying because the House votes one way and the Senate votes the other. “Insist” motions, where one body tries to pressure the other to follow suit, are common.

There also appears to be some negotiating going on with the governor’s office. At the top of the House calendar is a joint order that calls a bill, LD 1364, back from the governor’s desk. The bill calls for a review of MaineCare rules surrounding private non-medical institution services.

More than 60 bills — most of them minor — are up for enactment votes in the House alone, with another 40 up for initial votes. They likely won’t move through all of those today, but they’re really starting to pile up. The Senate’s load is more modest.

Committees are also busy, with the labor committee holding confirmation hearings on LePage economic adviser John Butera’s nomination to be the state’s labor commissioner and Wade Merritt’s nomination to direct the Maine International Trade Center. The Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee will take public comment on manufacturing license requirements under the voter-approved legalization law. — Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Best of Maine’s Craigslist

  • Pickup artist seeks wingmen. A Portland man who is “into game” but usually “roll(s) solo” wants to “build up a group” of “solid” wingmen, but warns, “Don’t message back unless you are really into improving your game. It’s a waste of my time and yours.”
  • She runs a Wiccan daycare, but don’t call her a ‘high priestess.’ An Auburn woman is seeking a class of no more than five kids between the ages of 3 and 5 for her Wiccan preschool, but she is a “crone” and doesn’t use “titles such as high priestess.” Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd


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.