AUGUSTA — State House leaders Monday outlined their plans for the start of the second regular session of the 127th Legislature, but it’s clear Republicans and Democrats are going to struggle to find common ground on a host of issues.

Topping the list will be how fast the Legislature moves on a bill that’s meant to stem an ongoing opioid overdose crisis that’s claiming an average of five lives a week, according to the state’s attorney general.

But during an afternoon news conference, House Republican leaders said they wanted to slow down a $4.8 million bill that aims to not only fund more drug enforcement agents but also looks to boost addiction counseling and treatment around the state.

“Before we spend any more money on that I think we need to slow down,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. “Take a look at what is exactly out there, what is the level of efficacy of the systems that we already have in place and then . . . we are not opposed to adding anything new as long as there is an evidenced-based model that we can look to that is fruitful and has worked.”

Sanderson said the state spends nearly $80 million a year already on drug treatment programs and that she and others believe those programs need to be carefully looked at to make sure the money is being spent effectively.

But during the same news conference, Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, said her caucus intended to work collaboratively with their Democratic counterparts in the House as well as with their Republican and Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

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Espling said her hope was that House Republicans would at least have a chance to share their ideas on the top issues of the session, and she used the pending drug bill as an example. 

“I think we stand ready and willing to collaborate with anyone that would like to collaborate with us,” Espling said. “I think it has been very clear and apparent to us that sometimes these things happen without our input.”

Espling and Assistant House Majority Leader Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, both agreed that solving the state’s growing opioid addiction problem wasn’t going to be something that was accomplished in a short period of time or something that one new law could fix.

“We need to look at it as a long-term problem that requires long-term solutions, and I do think that it’s something we think we can just put a band-aid on right now and hope that it goes way,” Espling said.

In a separate interview, Gideon said Espling was right in her analysis of the depth of the problem and the amount of time it was going to take to resolve.

Gideon also said concern over a possible attempt to impeach Republican Gov. Paul LePage over his involvement with House Speaker Mark Eves, D-Berwick, and his firing from the Good Will-Hinckley School last year wouldn’t be allowed to derail collaborative work in the Legislature.

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Some lawmakers believe LePage acted improperly when he told the school it risked losing state funding if it hired Eves. Those lawmakers have the ability to bring an impeachment order to the House floor, and may be allowed to by leadership, but Gideon was clear that effort wouldn’t be allowed to become a distraction from the Legislature’s other work.

“We have no intention of creating a spectacle that goes on and that prevents us from doing the work in this state, because, really, at the end of the day, we’ve seen hundreds of people lose their jobs, we’ve seen the towns that host those jobs become decimated, we have five people dying a week from overdoses on opioids, we have kids and elderly people who are not able to get the food in their bellies because of problems that (the Department of Health and Human Services) is having,” Gideon said.

“There are real things to deal with and we have every intention of moving beyond the first day of this session, to not talking about the governor, to not fighting with our counterparts in the Legislature, but just getting real work done,” she said.

That real work would likely include some form of adjustment to the state budget to account for any state revenue shortfall or other items that would cost additional money, including changes to the state’s tax code so it would better conform with federal law.

House Republicans said they didn’t believe LePage would be offering any supplemental budget proposal, and said that while it does help when the governor provides the Legislature with guidance on the budget, LePage has been reticent to do so because his suggestions have so often been disregarded.

“He says it’s up to the Legislature to right this, and in his mind that’s what I believe he feels,” said Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. “And so it will be up to us to look at the budget and where we are at, and we have some bills in the Appropriations Committee that we can deal with at the time when it becomes necessary.” 

“At this time, it’s all speculation on where (the budget) is going and what is going to happen, but until we get something to deal with we will have to wait and see, and then we will deal with it,” he said.

Timberlake said the next state revenue forecast due in February would be the best look at where the state’s finances are at.

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