AUGUSTA –– A legislative committee voted Thursday to scale back Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to ramp up Maine’s war on drugs, reducing the funding to hire more agents, judges and prosecutors. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee also added money to fund more drug treatment programs.

The changes, endorsed in an 8-4 vote, mean the bill will likely get support in the House and Senate from Democrats, who hold the majority and have said that LePage’s bill was too heavy on law enforcement and too light on treatment and prevention.

The governor requested 14 investigators for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, four assistant attorneys general assigned to drug prosecution and four additional judges for enhanced drug courts. The total cost of the bill was estimated at $3.2 million.

The amendment, proposed by Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill, would cut the number of positions to 10 MDEA agents, two attorneys general and two judges. It also would add $750,000 for existing drug treatment programs. The estimated cost is $2.25 million.

The bill could go to the Senate as early as next week.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the committee, said the treatment funding would ultimately be allocated by the state Department of Health and Human Services to current providers.

“The administration can elect to restore funding to current programs that may have experienced a cut,” Dion said. “The governor has said (DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew) is working on (treatment). What we’re saying, as a committee, is that in order to have a balanced approach we’re authorizing three-quarters of a million dollars to her to prioritize that funding. She may have a good program that lacks funds. She may want to strengthen a particular program. We’re willing to defer to her to make the best decisions around allocating that money.”

The LePage administration has proposed cuts in funding for drug abuse treatment and prevention. In the budget that he submitted to the Legislature in 2011, LePage sought to cut $4.4 million from the program that funds treatment. In subsequent negotiations, he offered to cut the reduction in half, but the Legislature eventually refused to eliminate any of the funding.

In February, the state imposed a two-year limit on MaineCare payments to people who are being treated for opiate addiction with suboxone and methadone, with certain exceptions. About 12,000 Mainers had suboxone prescriptions in 2010, according to the DHHS, and many of them were MaineCare recipients.

Earlier this year, 19,000 recipients classified as “childless adults” were removed from the program, including hundreds of beneficiaries who used the health care program for methadone to treat heroin addiction. The cut was proposed by LePage, who has often said that able-bodied adults should go without state assistance.

A report in the Maine Sunday Telegram last month showed that the number of Maine people seeking treatment for opiate abuse has more than doubled in the past decade, to about 4,800 in 2013. In the past three years alone, demand for treatment has increased 15 percent. The number seeking treatment for heroin abuse has doubled since 2010, to 1,820.

In 2010, Maine spent $47 million on substance abuse treatment ranging from sober-living situations such as halfway houses, to outpatient counseling, to hospitals or short-term stays in rehabilitation clinics. Last year, the amount dropped by 7 percent, to $43.7 million.

At the same time, funding for the MDEA has lagged as federal policy and dollars have shifted from the “war on drugs” to alternatives. The agency now has 40 full-time employees assigned to drug cases. It had close to 100 sworn agents and employees in 1992, when the Legislature and Republican Gov. John McKernan created the MDEA.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sharply criticized LePage’s bill, noting that drug arrests have increased by nearly 240 percent since the mid-1980s while “abuse has skyrocketed.” The ACLU cited a report from the state Attorney General’s Office that 163 drug-related deaths occurred in Maine in 2012, more than the number of deaths caused by car accidents.

The administration has countered by saying the bill would target dealers and disrupt sophisticated drug operations from outside Maine.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Thursday that LePage will have to review the amendments to the bill before deciding whether he supports it.

Dion, the committee co-chairman, said the amended bill gives LePage part of what he wanted.

“The majority of the committee acknowledged that we have a significant public safety challenge with methamphetamine and heroin addiction,” he said. “I think balance is appropriate. If the governor believes in enhanced drug courts, then he has to give them access to services so they can do their job. That’s all we’re trying to do.”

The proposal’s cost looms as a potential obstacle even though the amended bill is $1 million less than LePage’s proposal.

Dion said he will fight for the funding when the bill reaches the budget-writing committee, which determines the fate of bills that come with costs.

A slate of amendments also could complicate the bill’s passage.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, moved an amendment that would fund the bill with a provision to legalize the sale of marijuana. Wilson said his amendment would create ample revenue to fully fund the governor’s proposal and add dollars for treatment and prevention.

The committee rejected the amendment, as several members balked at the prospect of legalizing marijuana to fund a drug enforcement and prevention bill, but Wilson’s proposal could still be considered by the House and Senate.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler