LePage’s own numbers undercut his claim that Down East prison is most expensive

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage’s administration’s argument that Downeast Correctional Facility is too expensive to run compared to other Department of Corrections facilities is having holes poked in it — by the LePage administration.

Yeah, you read that right.

The governor has long cited the cost of the Machiasport prison as the core reason he ordered its sudden closure in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 9. That argument traces back to early in his administration and continued through Tuesday, when he told reporters outside the Blaine House that the Washington County prison “costs more to hold and imprison inmates than the maximum security prison in Warren.”

That was definitely true in past years, but not in 2017. According to data from the Department of Corrections, which were part of a court filing in the ongoing Maine Superior Court case over whether the prison should be reopened, DCF cost more than $47,000 per prisoner per year to operate from 2007 through 2010 — more expensive by that measure than Maine State Prison, Maine Correctional Center in Windham and the Charleston Correctional Facility.

But in 2017, the cost of running DCF was $41,582 per prisoner per year, compared to $46,162 at Maine State Prison and $54,201 at Maine Correctional Center. Only Bolduc Correctional Center in Warren, a minimum-security facility that runs job training programs for inmates, was cheaper than DCF among the Department of Corrections’ facilities, at $32,505 a year.

“The per-prisoner cost has been the governor’s singular talking point,” Chris Gardner, who chairs the Washington County Commission, said Tuesday. “This is their information. It’s the second cheapest facility the state has. I just want to say, ‘Governor, facts matter.’”

Gardner isn’t the only one seizing on the data. Former Republican Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry joined the growing chorus this morning on Twitter, writing that LePage’s “vendetta against Downeast Correctional Facility is proven faulty.”

“Time for the Legislature to buck LePage and fund the prison,” he wrote.

When asked to explain why LePage uses the per-prisoner cost argument when the most recent data contradict it, spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz provided a Department of Corrections statement that argues DCF is indeed the most expensive prison facility in Maine if you average costs over a decade.

“When looking across the last 10 years, Downeast Correctional Facility costs more to operate on a per-inmate basis than the Maine State Prison,” reads the statement. “Specifically, across the last 10 years, DCF cost an average of $44,148 per inmate, per year while Maine State Prison cost an average of $43,773 per inmate, per year.”

Will this data save the prison? Hard to say. A judge has ordered LePage to reopen the prison, which his legal team said Tuesday would happen by week’s end with five employees and a “minimal” number of inmates. Meanwhile, a legislative attempt to appropriate another $5.5 million to maintain the facility into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, is likely dead — but still an open issue.

You can expect the Department of Corrections data to become the prime talking point for opponents of the closure. In fact, it already has.

King: Special counsel’s firing would be ‘a crisis,’ not impeachable

U.S. Sen. Angus King told a radio host that he has ‘a high standard’ for impeachment of a president. Washington, D.C., is abuzz with the possibility that President Donald Trump may order the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. The president tweeted on Monday that’s it’s “a total WITCH HUNT.”

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that he would consider Mueller’s firing “a crisis” and “a huge mistake.” But he said it wouldn’t be impeachable by itself, saying he has “a high standard” for impeachment, which is reserved by the Constitution for cases of treason, bribery and “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leading Republican critic of Trump, said on Tuesday that impeachment would be the only remedy for such a move. King’s Democratic opponent in 2018, Zak Ringelstein of Portland, has made the same argument.

Maine House again nixes calls for constitutional conventions

The House of Representatives on Tuesday rejected attempts to have Maine support two separate efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution. The measures called for implementing term limits for members of Congress and requiring that the federal budget remain balanced. The former failed 83-60 and the latter failed 87-56.

Constitutional conventions represent one of the paths to amending the Constitution. The method requires at least two-thirds of state legislatures — that’s 34 states — to support it with two-thirds votes. That has never happened.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this brief incorrectly stated that two-thirds votes in each chamber were required to endorse a constitutional convention and that three-quarters of the states had to agree before one could be called.

Today in A-town

Committee work is supposed to end soon as we approach the Legislature’s statutory adjournment date. The original deadline was last Friday, but lawmakers don’t handle deadlines well (here’s their soundtrack), and the governor continues to introduce bills. Most committee work is now supposed to be done by this Friday as the full Legislature is set to be in session three days next week and five days in later weeks ahead of a scheduled April 18 adjournment date.

Four committees will be working on Wednesday, including the State and Local Government Committee, which will hold a public hearing on a LePage bill to exempt commercial pesticide applicators from municipal ordinances in certain cases. The Legislature is scheduled to return on Thursday if the snow doesn’t interfere again.

Reading list

  • After jousting with LePage, a legislative panel endorsed an investigation of the state’s allocation of wood harvested on public lands. The move stems from a February episode in which millowners who oppose LePage’s stance on softwood tariffs didn’t get all the wood from state land they expected. The state forester has said wood was only diverted to bail out a mill close to closure. An angry LePage repeated that on Tuesday before the Legislature’s forestry committee, singling out Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the leader of the inquiry, for criticism.
  • The Maine Public Utilities Commission has launched an investigation into Central Maine Power’s billing procedures. The commission voted Tuesday to start a “technical forensic audit” to complement a summary investigation launched in February regarding a new billing system and complaints from consumers about spikes in their electric bills.
  • The Bar Harbor Port Authority died before it could live. A heavily debated bill to create a port authority in Bar Harbor died Tuesday due to a 81-63 House vote that failed to meet the two-thirds majority threshold required to override LePage’s veto of the bill. The veto was sustained by mostly House Republicans.
  • The state won’t hike ferry rates, yet. The Maine Department of Transportation said Tuesday that rate increases originally slated to take effect by the end of this month will be delayed. Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said he based his decision on feedback from island residents.

When Darth Vader hands you a slip of paper, you take it

You never know what you’re going to see in the halls of the State House. Or who. I usually don’t take the handouts that are invariably offered to passers-by, but when a person dressed head to toe Tuesday in a Darth Vader outfit held out a pink slip of paper, I felt compelled to take it. I know it’s just Hollywood, but visions of being choked out by the dark lord from across the hall materialized. Plus, I was curious.

The paper purported to be “from the offices of Phebe Novakovic and Jon Fitzgerald,” who are the CEO of General Dynamics and the deputy general counsel for subsidiary Bath Iron Works, respectively. It argues that “every single state is a potential victim of corporate extortion of jobs” and argues against the passage of LD 1781, which seeks to extend millions of dollars worth of tax breaks that Bath Iron Works has received for the past 20 years.

Vader shouldn’t throw stones from his glass house. Building his Death Star would undoubtedly raise taxes. A group of Lehigh University students estimated it would cost $852,000,000,000,000,000. We don’t even know what that number is but it’s roughly 13,000 times the world’s gross domestic product, according to the study.

Thankfully, according to the handout, Novakovic and Fitzgerald aren’t on board.

“Mr. Vader’s personal enrichment efforts are neither condemned nor condoned by either General Dynamics WMD Corporation or by Bath Iron Works,” it reads.

Darth, Darth, Darth. We know you have your own soundtrack but it’s not working here. 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.

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.