Riverview vote casts early cloud over bipartisanship in the new Legislature

The 127th Legislature went out with a bang on Wednesday with a partisan vote that has apparently blocked the construction of a new forensic mental health unit near the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. Click here for the details.

“We will simply build the stepdown facility outside of the Capitol Area and out of the jurisdiction of Democrats on the Legislative Council,” said Gov. Paul LePage in a written statement late Wednesday afternoon, after the 3-3 party-line vote.

LePage accused Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills of changing her interpretation of a law that requires the Legislative Council to approve construction projects in the Capitol Area, which is a zoning district in Augusta. Mills disputed that accusation.

“The fact that the administration has ignored the plain language of the statute in the past does not excuse their ignoring the rightful oversight of the legislative branch in major projects of this sort that have potentially great financial implications to the taxpayers,” said Mills in a news release.

LePage and Republican House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said at least 30 projects have been completed in the Capitol Area without the approval of the Legislative Council. Here’s your soundtrack.

According to a list of those projects provided by Fredette’s office, the Legislative Council hasn’t approved a construction project in the Capitol Area since 2007. The projects that were not voted on include Riverview Psychiatric Center itself in 2004, the Kennebec Arsenal project and a range of repairs and renovations to various buildings.

Democrats said the forensic unit project needs vetting by the Legislature’s appropriations and health and human services committees for a range of reasons including the financing, operations and and policy matters related to who would be housed in the facility. LePage intends to house individuals who have been referred to the mental health system by the courts or Department of Corrections but who do not require hospital-level care. He intends for the facility to be privately run.

Democrats have blocked various proposals for a separate unit, including creating one at Maine State Prison, dating back at least two years. In recent months, they have decried the LePage administration’s secrecy around the project, including refusing to say how it will be financed without an appropriation having been made by the Legislature. Incoming House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport suggested that the project could be vetted by the Legislature on a fast-track in January.

“Why would we not take the time to send this and expedite it through committee with the questions that need to be answered?” she asked Ricker Hamilton, deputy commissioner of DHHS, during Wednesday’s meeting. At one point, Gideon forcefully told Hamilton to stop interrupting her.

In response, Hamilton said the construction would be funded from unobligated funds, a federal grant and “mental health general funds.” Ongoing operations of the facility would be funded out of existing pools of money, including funds already appropriated for the care of forensic patients.

“No services will be cut,” said Hamilton. “These are unobligated funds.”

Fredette cast the lone vote against tabling the project, which forced an up-or-down vote on Wednesday. He then proposed that the Legislative Council approve the project with a promise from DHHS to visit legislative committees in January, but that didn’t move any of the Democrats.

Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess but it looks likely that the administration will be looking outside of Augusta for a building site. Politically, it casts a cloud over the prospect of bipartisanship on major issues facing the Legislature just a few weeks before the new 128th Legislature is seated.

And any questions about who will take over as a foil for LePage now that Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves is term limited out of office were also answered: Gideon.

There is more than just politics at stake here. The new forensic unit is seen as crucial to the state’s regaining federal certification for Riverview and preserving the $20 million in annual funding that comes with it. That certification was pulled in the first place after the feds discovered a controversy involving the use of tasers and restraints on patients in state custody. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Passing the baton on senior citizen issues: Outgoing Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves spent most of his 8 years in the Legislature with a focus on proposals aimed at helping senior citizens on a spectrum of issues, including staying in their homes longer. Since the summer, Eves has conducted an 11-stop “listening tour” with the intent of passing a package of legislative proposals to the 128th Legislature. He announced those items Wednesday during a press conference at the State House. They included investments in public transportation, an increase in reimbursement rates for direct-care workers, property tax relief, support for family members caring for their elders, and a grant fund to encourage community volunteers who help senior citizens. At the top of the list, though, is a bill forcing Gov. Paul LePage to release a $15 million housing bond that was approved last year by voters in a state-wide referendum. Click here to see his full report.
  • Cash for the tribes: U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King announced Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded a total of more than $222,000 to the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians for economic development purposes. The money will be used by the Micmacs to explore two potential new projects: specialty foods and alternative energy production. The Maliseets will use their share of the grant to establish a revolving loan fund for small businesses.
  • The King of one-liners: Independent U.S. Sen Angus King had some pithy quotes in regards to President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Steven Mnuchin, a long-time partner at Goldman Sachs, for treasury secretary. King said he’ll reserve final judgment until Mnuchin’s confirmation hearings but according to a tweet from David Wright of CNN, King said this: “It does strike me as an odd way of draining the swamp to bring in a new alligator from Wall Street.” — Christopher Cousins

Reading list 

The best birth control?

Today is National Eat a Red Apple Day which, naturally, reminds me of sex.

The prospect of eating apples triggered a memory from middle school health class in the 7th grade. The teacher was talking about birth control (and we were all snickering and squirming uncomfortably, of course). After the serious part he said, “and like my mom used to say, the best and most effective birth control is to eat an apple.”

We were dumbfounded that there could be such an easy way to achieve safe sex. Even though most of us hadn’t had sex yet (as far as I knew), we envisioned bushels of apples in reserve. I wondered if apple juice or apple sauce would also work. Someone raised their hand.

“Eat the apple before or after having sex?” he asked.

“Instead of,” said the teacher.

It was rather anticlimactic. — 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.