LePage’s prison power play rekindles enmity from 2017 shutdown fight with lawmakers

Good morning from Augusta. Gov. Paul LePage’s abrupt Friday closure of a Washington County prison has reignited tension between the Legislature and the Republican governor on the eve of his last State of the State speech, scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Several Republicans joined the chorus of legislators criticizing the governor after the closure. Two Republicans — Rep. William Tuell of East Machias and Sen. Joyce Maker of Calais — have been leading the legislative effort to keep Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport open since LePage threatened to close it over cost in 2017.

But the governor reversed course and signed a two-year budget breaking a state government shutdown that funded the prison through June 2018. LePage’s move last week came just after a legislative committee endorsed a Tuell bill to fund the prison for at least another year.

It’s the latest step in the governor’s long-standing power struggle with the Legislature. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, fought LePage in Maine’s high court in 2015, when it ruled that LePage missed his chance to veto 65 bills.

Thibodeau and other Senate Republican leaders said Friday that they are “committed to the people of Washington County.” Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, called the move a “backdoor attempt” to nullify “bipartisan work and support in the Legislature.”

But it’s unclear whether the Legislature can do anything to reverse it. Senate Republicans spokeswoman Krysta West said Tuell’s bill hasn’t left the committee yet and the panel’s co-chairs are considering their options on it.

Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, stated the obvious on Friday by releasing a statement saying LePage’s move “flies in the face of the clear intent of the Legislature.” She only concluded to say her office will explore “all possible actions” in response.

While it’s a novel move by the governor, it seems like it would be difficult for the Legislature to reconstitute a closed prison with laid-off staffers and dispersed inmates.

Maker has a long history with LePage, but she seems to be trying to defuse the conflict. Maker, a moderate who isn’t running for re-election, won her only Senate term in 2016 after LePage endorsed a conservative opponent. In an implicit critique of LePage, she hit her own party for its division during last year’s shutdown.

During her legislative tenure, the LePage administration has also closed a health and human services office in her home city. She noted that in a Monday interview with WVOM, but she also said she hoped the governor won’t talk much about the closure in Tuesday’s speech.

“I’ve been brought up to respect the position of the governor,” Maker said. “It’s going to be very uncomfortable for at least the Washington County delegation, but I expect us all to be there and listen to what he has to say.”

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are out today but several legislative committees are scheduled to meet throughout the day. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has work sessions this morning on some controversial bills held over from last year. One is a “victims’ bill of rights” from Thibodeau, which would add protections during the prosecution and appeals processes. A related bill from House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, would strengthen crime victims’ rights by authorizing victims to be present at all trial proceedings and to receive notification if a defendant escapes from incarceration. The same committee is also considering a recommendation on a bill that sets new rules for in-person visitations in county jails. Check out the full committee schedule by clicking here.

Reading list

  • A familiar face from Maine politics quit his job at the White House on Friday after being accused of domestic violence. David Sorensen was a spokesman for the Maine Republican Party and worked for LePage in the Department of Health and Human Services and as a senior policy adviser before taking a speechwriting job in the Trump administration. He resigned Friday as The Washington Post was preparing to report allegations from his ex-wife, Jessica Corbett, that he physically and emotionally abused her during their marriage. Sorensen denied the claims and released a lengthy statement saying she physically abused him.
  • The Downeast closure took work-release laborers away from several Washington County businesses. The LePage administration moved the prison’s 63 inmates to other locations in Maine. One seafood wholesaler said it lost eight employees — a third of its workforce — when the state packed up and left on Friday.
  • The Maine State Ferry Service is raising its fares. Officials with the system say they must bump their rates to avoid a shortfall over the next couple of years. A practice of selling tickets for half price on the islands and full price on the mainland, which was meant to give island residents a break, has been abused by non-islanders and will be ended.

200 words per minute. Honestly, Abe?

We all know the power of music when it comes to learning. Would any of us be able to recite Maine’s 16 counties without the song we all learned in elementary school? As it turns out, there’s a catchy song about Abraham Lincoln aimed squarely at the tastes of today’s young’uns.

“It sounds like Eminem rapping about Abraham Lincoln,” said Daily Brief editor Robert Long. We agree and not just because he’s the boss.

This is the part where I say “Wow, did you know this about Abe?” about something that everyone but me knows. Somehow I missed that he borrowed $1,000 to open a store that failed and went bankrupt. It took him 17 years to pay it off, which reminds us that when it comes to debt in America, some things never change. Here’s your soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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.