AUGUSTA — LePage administration proposals to eliminate state funding for county jails next year and to hold the line on compensation for court-appointed attorneys received a chilly reception from Democratic budget writers Friday.

Gov. Paul LePage made the proposals as part of a nearly 200-page budget “change package” that may – or may not – become part of lawmakers’ deliberations as they try to finalize a new two-year budget.

Among the additional budget requests or proposals from the governor’s office:

 $2 million to cover legal bills when Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, declines to represent the administration.

 The elimination of $16 million in state funding for county jails beginning in March 2018.

• A nine-month funding extension for the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, which LePage had planned to close on June 10.

• The elimination of $556,000 for a civil rights program in the Attorney General’s Office for school-age students. Created by the Legislature two decades ago, the program works with civil rights teams in elementary, middle and high schools that identify and address bias in schools.

LePage argues the office would be better housed in the Department of Education. Mills said she was taken aback by the proposal to eliminate program funding and the two staffers that work with the 188 volunteer civil rights teams statewide.

“Just Monday of this week, 550 Maine students from 54 schools across Maine convened at the Civil Rights Team Project Conference,” Mills said in a statement. “The Conference got rave reviews from students and faculty alike, so we were very surprised to see the administration’s sudden proposal to eliminate the two positions in our budget that support and advise these teams, on the heels of such a successful conference. We hope the Legislature will reject the proposed cut to this popular program.”

Much of the early discussion during Friday’s Appropriations Committee meeting was on county jails and “indigent legal services.”

LePage has been pushing for years for either the state or counties to assume full control of the jails, replacing the current scenario in which counties manage the facilities but require state funding. LePage’s original two-year budget also proposed the creation of a Public Defender’s Office for low-income defendants now represented by private attorneys appointed by the courts.

The administration’s top financial official acknowledged that part of the impetus behind the policy decisions is to pressure lawmakers to address long-standing concerns over the court and correctional systems.

“The arguments that are coming back time and time again are, ‘Defend the status quo, keep the status quo . . . without reform and without modification,’” said Richard Rosen, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. “So I think the question I would pose back to the Legislature in general and to this committee is: Are you comfortable with the status quo?”

But that approach did not go over well with some Appropriations Committee members.

Rep. Denise Tepler, D-Topsham, said it was difficult for her “to see this as a genuine attempt to ask us to come together around a solution.”

Tepler compared the governor’s use of the budget to pressure lawmakers to the “sequestration” budget cuts on Capitol Hill. Congress passed a law requiring 10 years of across-the-board budget cuts as a way to incentivize members to find less indiscriminate ways to reduce the federal deficit. Years later, the “sequestration” cuts are still in place.

“It failed miserably,” Tepler said. “No one came together to create a new and more creative solution. Instead, the cuts that were proposed just happened and what that looks like, from my side of the aisle, is a deliberate attempt to reduce the services that government provides.”

Earlier this month, the account that provides funding for court-appointed attorneys for low-income defendants ran dry because lawmakers did not appropriate enough money in the current budget. As a result, court-appointed lawyers are not being paid.

LePage’s budget “change package” does not provide any further funding in the current fiscal year for court-appointed attorneys, which several Democrats seized on during Friday’s discussion with Rosen.

“This is a constitutional requirement,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “The idea that we are going to simply not appropriate any money… as a way of pressuring us to solve a problem that we’ve had a hard time solving in the past, is a very dangerous and concerning approach to me.”

But that prompted Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to point out that it’s the Legislature that makes the final decision on funding programs.

“We will appropriate money for the rest of this fiscal year, through June 30th, because lawyers are working and not getting paid,” Katz said. “And we will fund it to whatever level we believe is appropriate for the entire biennium to fulfill this constitutional responsibility.”

The LePage administrations change package does, however, propose an additional $2 million – or $1 million in each fiscal year – to cover the LePage administration’s legal expenses.

Maine’s Republican governor and Democratic attorney general long have clashed over legal issues, with Mills declining on several occasions to represent LePage in the lawsuits that he frequently joined with other Republican governors. In such instances, LePage must seek Mills’ authorization to hire outside counsel. But those private attorneys have cost the state more than $385,000 since 2014, according to a recent tally by The Associated Press.

LePage sued Mills earlier this month, accusing her of abuse of power by declining to represent his administration in federal lawsuits. Mills has countered that the attorney general is an independent constitutional officer whose duty is to represent the public interest, not the administration.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at:

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