AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are struggling to find a solution for a looming county jail funding crisis that’s being driven in part by a dysfunctional Board of Corrections.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday discussed legislation offered by state Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, that would return control of the jails, along with most of the related costs, to county governments.

Long’s proposal would gradually ratchet down the amount of funding the state provides to help finance jails, Long said.

His bill also eliminates the Board of Corrections and gradually removes a county property tax cap that was put in place under the 2008 law that created the board and a funding scheme that sends about $14.6 million a year from the state to the county. 

Some lawmakers on the panel voiced frustration that the proposed changes could wipe out seven years of work that led to more collaboration and cost-saving among county jails. Others said Long’s bill would eventually put the full expense of jails back on county governments and property taxes.

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said he wasn’t confident the proposals lawmakers had come up with to solve the funding and control issues for jails would work if they were passed.

Chenette said he could support implementing the first year of Long’s proposal to see what its impact might be at the local level.

“We are basically just sort of throwing darts at a board, blindfolded, and hoping it will hit the board,” Chenette said. He said that he hoped his colleagues on the committee recognized the change back to total county control with the elimination of the property tax caps meant they would be voting to raise property taxes.

Long said there was little doubt that’s what they were doing and noted the change for his county, Aroostook, could mean as much as a 55 percent property tax increase. Long said he did the math on his own property tax bill and figured his tax would increase by $20 a year under the proposal.

Others said they could support a short-term solution, with the possibility of making adjustments in the next lawmaking session.  

State Rep. James Davitt, D-Hampden, said he appreciated Long’s effort to craft a solution and his proposal to give the counties what Long called “a soft landing,” but Davitt also voiced frustration that recommendations on what the state should do — other than eliminate the Board of Corrections — were few and far between.

Davitt said that lack of input was one reason the committee had been “floundering for two months” with the issue. He urged the committee to make sure that whatever it decides allows for legislative oversight, “some way to make sure that the system isn’t going to go in a handbasket.”

Under Long’s proposal, which is an amendment to LD 186, the Maine Department of Corrections would dole out the state funds that would be made available.

In all, county jails cost about $80 million to operate in 2014, with the counties paying about $62 million.  

Also in 2014, the Legislature passed — over a Gov. Paul LePage veto — a law reducing the size of the Board of Corrections and gave the board more authority to manage jail operations and finances. The 2014 law change also gave the governor control of the majority of the appointments to the new five-member panel.

But after his veto of that bill was overturned, LePage refused to appoint members to the board, leaving it without a quorum and unable to conduct business under state law. Both of the board’s paid employees resigned earlier this year.

LePage has previously said jails must be run and funded by either state or county government but not both. 

“The governor believes that the Board of Corrections system has been a failure and needs to be abolished,” Hank Fenton, a lawyer for LePage wrote in testimony before the committee.

Fenton added, “When it comes to which entity should have this control, the governor does not have a preference … whichever entity comes to control the jails, that same entity and no other, should have the responsibility for funding the jails as soon as the control shifts.”

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved $2.5 million in emergency funding for jails that allowed them to stay in operation under the direction of the state’s Department of Corrections until June 30. 

While the committee discussed Long’s proposal for more than three hours Thursday, as well as taking additional testimony from several people, including sheriffs and county commissioners, it took no action.

Additional committee work sessions to craft amendments will be held on Long’s proposal  before a recommendation is offered to the full Legislature. 

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