Drug deal far from cordial



On Dec. 9, just a day ahead of when Governor Paul LePage said he would call up the National Guard to assist with drug enforcement in a manner not specified, three of the four legislative caucuses joined forces to announce a plan for additional resources to combat Maine’s drug problem.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves proposed $4.8 million to tackle the problem, with the money to be split between enforcement and treatment.

The plan gave lawmakers, particularly Democrats, some of what they wanted in terms of increased treatment and recovery opportunities. It also gave the governor the additional law enforcement positions he had demanded due to the “increasingly organized, ruthless and prolific nature of the supply side of the heroin crisis.”

The presiding officers (Thibodeau and Eves) were surprised to learn at the press conference that the governor had, by executive order, stripped $781,000 out of two agency budgets to fund the 10 new drug enforcement agents immediately. In a letter to Thibodeau, he said that because he had been assured (by way of a letter from Thibodeau) that “the Legislature will fund these 10 agents in an expedited manner in January,” he did a little expediting of his own and got the ball rolling so agents could be recruited and trained without delay.

This is not the kind of surprise legislators are crazy about, but the two leaders took it with good grace, expressing support for the governor’s wish to have the additional agents “hit the streets as soon as possible.”

This was a major step toward the kind of governance we were hoping to find in our Christmas stockings. The parties worked hard to develop a plan they both could support and that addressed the chief executive’s priorities as well.

When they offered it up, the governor met them halfway, praising the leaders for funding the drug enforcement agents and for their determination to act quickly on the package when the session begins in January. No, wait, that last part didn’t happen. Claiming he had not seen the substance of the legislators’ plan, the governor said: “I deserve the respect to be told. … They should be at least courteous enough to give me the damn plan.”

The other sour note in the proceedings came from House Republicans. Unlike Senate Republicans, House Republicans have walked closer to the LePage line on most issues.

Republican leader Ken Fredette said he was shut out of the legislative planning process and that “as far as I know, there’s not a plan.” He said he had not been a participant, did not know the details of a proposal and had not been invited to the press conference, though he had at least been present at a meeting on Dec. 7. The speaker’s office disputed his claims.

No doubt their sense of exclusion will make it difficult for House Republicans to support the plan in January. This is problematic. The bill enacting the proposal will need a two-thirds vote in order for it to take effect immediately, and that will require some Republican votes.

The Senate president has said the bill will run through the regular process, including a public hearing, though it will be on a fast track for sure. He hopes it will be ready for the governor’s signature on Jan. 14, just a week after the legislature convenes.

What’s with all the letter writing? It is a 30-second trot from the offices of the Senate president and the speaker of the House to the governor’s office one floor below, yet communication seems to be happening entirely by letter.

Thibodeau made a reference to this in his Dec. 8 letter to the governor, in which he said, “While I would like to deliver this message personally, my attempts to obtain a meeting with you for the past several months have been unsuccessful.”

For the governor’s part, he concluded his letter of Dec. 9 thusly: “Also, as has been communicated to you repeatedly, I am more than willing to meet with you on matters of good public policy that will move our state forward and benefit the Maine people.”

Willing to meet, but not able to obtain a meeting? If you are privileged to have acquaintances of the female persuasion in grades six through eight, this will sound familiar. BFF’s today, sworn enemies tomorrow. “They went to the mall, and they didn’t invite me!” “I’m having a sleepover, but I’m NOT inviting Bethany!”

In what could be taken as a veiled warning, the governor (in his Dec. 9 letter to Thibodeau) said this: “I urge you and Speaker Eves to take the time you need to ensure your final legislation adequately supports education and prevention in a meaningful way.” Possible interpretation: I’ve got my agents and the funding for them. Away with you and your education and prevention priorities. I’ll decide if they are meaningful.

We were so close! It could have been a big win-win in Augusta, but good will toward men is not yet fully present in the State House.

jillgold@gwi.net

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.

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