AUGUSTA — The Maine House on Tuesday passed a bill that returns control of county jails to the counties.

The bill, LD 186, repeals a 2007 law change that aimed to consolidate the operations of the state’s 15 county jails with the Maine Department of Corrections through a unified state Board of Corrections.

The bill passed on a vote of 131-14. It includes about $15 million in state funding and the partial removal of a property-tax cap placed on counties.

The new cap would be limited to 3 percent of any property-value growth in the county. Counties without any valuation growth would be unable to raise taxes to help cover increasing jail costs.

Tuesday’s votes follow nearly five months of debate and negotiations over how jails should be funded and who should have the final say on their operations.

The decision is also the latest in a battle between the Legislature and Republican Gov. Paul LePage over jail funding.

In 2014, state lawmakers overturned LePage’s veto of a bill that gave the Board of Corrections more authority to make changes within jails and reduced the number of members on the board.

The changes also gave the governor the ability to control the majority of the appointments to the new five-member panel.

After the veto override, 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 said that county jails should be controlled and funded by either the state or the county but not by both.

Jails in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties have all been swept into the funding controversy to varying degrees.

A jail funding shortfall prompted lawmakers earlier this year to approve $2.5 million in emergency funding for five counties: Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Penobscot and Aroostook. Those funds were meant to keep jails open through the end of this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

As part of that emergency funding package, the Legislature also agreed to allow the commissioner of the Department of Corrections to disburse the funds but some county officials have said, so far, only 30 percent of the state funds have been passed on to jails that are struggling with their finances.

The state Senate was expected to take up the bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, late in the day on Tuesday, but sent it back to the appropriations table for a final review of the numbers.

But even if the Senate approves the measure, it is likely to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage who has said county jails should have only one boss, either state government or county government, and whoever that boss is should foot the bill.

Maine jails cost about $80 million a year to operate; counties cover about $62 million.

State Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, House chairwoman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which approved Davis’ bill after weeks of work, said Tuesday the bill includes $14.8 million in state funding for jails.

But other lawmakers, including those on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, have said the state can only contribute $12 million to county jail operations in the coming year.

Fowle said the  2007 overhaul of the state’s jail system was an attempt at finding efficiencies and using available space in county jails to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prison system. Prior to the change, Fowle said, counties paid an average of 9 percent of property taxes per year to cover jail costs.

“The agreement at that time was we would consolidate and the state would start sending inmates to county jails to help solve the overcrowding problems in the state jails and would help with the shortfall that was going on in the counties,” Fowle said. 

Under the arrangement, counties were paid by the state to house Department of Corrections inmates, but some counties said the state never fully reimbursed them for their costs.  

Other jails, including the one in Franklin County, were converted to 72-hour holding facilities, mainly housing suspects until they could either make bail or be arraigned before a judge. But Franklin County in April returned to a full-service jail after Somerset County refused to take Franklin County’s prisoners as a result of Somerset’s dispute with the state over funding.

That disagreement forced Franklin County to ship its inmates to other Maine jails, some more than an hour from Farmington, which ended up costing Franklin County more for travel and personnel costs as it transported prisoners around the state.

State Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said the bill gives counties “some wiggle room” and the flexibility to raise taxes if they have to — but not too much.

He said the bill included increased funding for operations in jails and increased funding for programs that help inmates from being re-incarcerated once they have serve their sentences.

He said under the bill counties would be required to spend 30 percent of the state funds they receive on those programs, known as Community Corrections, while 70 percent of the state funds would go toward jail operations and upkeep.

Chenette said the bill holds counties accountable for the funds they receive. “This isn’t going to be, ‘Here’s a check and let you go,'” Chenette said. He said the Department of Corrections, the Maine State Sheriffs’ Association and the Maine County Commissioners’ Association would work collaboratively to ensure proper spending of the funds.

State Rep. Lloyd “Skip” Herrick, R-Paris, a former sheriff for Oxford County, said he favored the bill.

“It’s a plan that needs to move forward,” Herrick said. “It’s a plan that’s good for people; it’s good for state corrections. We need to support this and we need to get it done.”

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