AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage is proposing to slash funding for the mothballed state Board of Corrections in the coming budget — a move that could all but ensure the group’s permanent dissolution.

The board has been defunct since 2014, when member departures and LePage’s unwillingness to appoint new members rendered the body incapable of achieving a quorum needed to take action. The board is a remnant of former Gov. John Baldacci’s attempt to create a more organized system for overseeing Maine’s county jails, but funding and jurisdictional problems rendered the board largely ineffective.

A temporary fix to address a shortfall in the current fiscal year passed in January, putting the Department of Corrections commissioner, Joseph Fitzpatrick, in charge of the jails until the end of this January.

The issue has only intensified already simmering concerns over administration of the county jails, leaving some lawmakers wondering whether control should simply revert to the counties, where it resided until the board’s creation in 2008.

LePage has maintained that he doesn’t care whether the state or counties run the jails. But a package of proposed changes to his biennial budget plan introduced to legislative budget writers on Thursday includes a provision to gut the Board of Corrections operations fund, which is worth about $6.5 million per year.

The change package would spend that money instead on raises for state prison employees, who Fitzpatrick said are paid significantly less than their counterparts in the county jails or state police.

“We have a significant number of vacancies” at state corrections facilities, Fitzpatrick told the Appropriations Committee. “No matter what we do to recruit people, we can’t retain them.”

But the operations fund represents a significant part of the Board of Corrections’ funding, and the only portion over which it exercises discretion. According to statute, the fund can be doled out to individual jails in chunks of up to $50,000, to meet staffing, facility or technology needs.

(Contrast that with the Community Corrections Fund, worth about $5.6 million per year, which flows through the Board of Corrections but is distributed by formula to the counties.)

Meanwhile, lawmakers on the Criminal Justice Committee voted 8-4 Friday to advance a bill returning the control of jails  – and their costs – back to the counties over time, in order to provide a so-called “soft (financial) landing” to counties.

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

Under the proposal state funding to the counties would be reduced gradually over a 3-year period from about $17.2 million in 2016 to about $12 million in 2018.

 The measure also disbands the Board of Corrections and partially removes a property tax cap placed on counties as a part of the bill that merged the jails in 2008.

 An alternative measure offered by the four members in the minority of the committee Friday would reconstitute the Board of Corrections.

Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, the House chairwoman of Criminal Justice, said the defunding effort by LePage would “underhandedly shut down the Board of Corrections” before the Legislature had a chance to decide the path forward.

Appropriations will hold a public hearing on the governor’s proposed changes to his budget plan at 10 a.m. Monday.

Sun Journal State Politics Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report.


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