Legislators on Friday overrode a Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of an additional $2.4 million in funding for the state’s jails over the next two years, an outcome applauded by local sheriffs.

The money is expected to make up the difference between the $12.2 million in jail spending the state already approved and the $14.6 million the state’s sheriffs say is needed.

Members of the House voted unanimously in favor of the override and it was approved 33-2 in the Senate.

Crowding is the main factor in determining need for the jail funding. Priority counties include Kennebec, Oxford and Penobscot, all of which have faced recent space problems that force them to send their inmates to other jails. The state has 15 jails — one in each county, with the exception of Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, which serves both Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.

In Kennebec County, Sheriff Ryan Reardon said that while enough space for the amount of inmates remains a problem at the jail, the county waited until after the state jail funding was appropriated last year to come up with its county budget.

“Other counties were not as lucky,” said Reardon. “The impact for us is that the money we receive from the state can go to other jails to board our inmates since we have an overcrowding problem.”

Funding for jails has been a point of concern since a statewide consolidated jail system was developed in 2007 to address growing costs. Under the consolidation, capped budget levels were developed for each county to keep local taxes from bearing the brunt and the state was to contribute the additional money needed to run the jails, but with rising costs and mostly flat funding allocated for the jails, problems have persisted.

Last July, the state agreed to return control of the jails to counties, but kept the caps on the county budgets, with an agreement that the state would continue to contributeg. Legislators approved $12.2 million in spending for the jails last year for 2015-2016, but sheriffs said it still was not enough to cover the estimated $14.6 million in jail expenditures. L.D. 1614, aimed to make up the difference with $2.4 million in funding.

In his veto letter to the Legislature on April 22, LePage said that “if the counties are responsible for operating the jails, then the counties should also be responsible for paying the costs of the jails.”

Several sheriffs and state lawmakers applauded the Legislature’s decision on Friday, saying that the $2.4 million is part of the state’s obligation to ensure the jails are running with adequate funds.

“It’s very good news, probably more so for some jails than for others,” said Joel Merry, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association and the Sagadahoc County Sheriff. “For some, this is a real sign of relief.”

The $12.2 million in state funding is allocated based on the average daily population in each jail and Merry said distribution of the additional $2.4 million will likely be based on need.

Even with the full $14.6 million being paid by the state, Reardon said that there is still not enough money, since the state has flat-funded its allocation for jails since 2014.

In Somerset County, Sheriff Dale Lancaster said he has refused to board inmates at the Somerset County Jail in East Madison if the county sending the inmate can’t pay. Without state financial support, those counties are forced to come up with the extra money either from local taxes or grants in order to avoid crowding and remain compliant with Department of Corrections rules.

“The state says they give us this money, and they technically do give us this money, but they also have an obligation because there are state entities that put inmates in the county jail,” Lancaster said.

The combination of a lack of money combined with increasing operating expenses at jails has made it nearly impossible for several counties to balance their budgets or properly operate jails in recent years. Even with the Legislature’s approval of full funding for what was asked for this year from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Merry said jails across the state are still concerned about long-term costs.

“When you look at the big picture, this money that was given to us really just keeps us flat-funded over the last three years, really,” Merry said.

Two members of the Legislature voted against fully funding the amount of money requested to fund the jails Friday. The vote was 148-0 in the House, with three representatives absent. It passed 33-2 in the Senate, with Senators Anne Haskell, D-Portland, and Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, voting against the override. Gerzofsky did not respond to an email seeking comment Friday, but Haskell said that her vote was a symbolic one meant to show support for the deteriorating consolidated jail system.

“The jails need additional funding, there’s no question about that,” said Haskell, a former member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee who worked to develop the consolidated jail system. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that (the jail funding bill) passed, but from my perspective I think we missed a real opportunity by watching this consolidation go down the tubes.”

In a press release Friday, members of the House Democrats applauded the override of the governor’s veto.

“I’m proud of how lawmakers stuck to this bipartisan solution in the face of the governor’s veto,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “As the people’s representatives, we have a duty to protect local property taxpayers. This is especially true in rural Maine, where communities like mine in Somerset County are already facing hardship because of inadequate school funding and sharp drops in mill valuations.”

“The governor with his veto was suggesting that the Legislature should impose a tax shift on to local communities,” said Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, House chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “We as a Legislature stood firm and rejected that today.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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