AUGUSTA — Mainers trying to have their driver’s licenses reinstated after drunken-driving suspensions are waiting an average of five additional weeks because of a paperwork backlog in the Department of Health and Human Services, according to a lawmaker who is trying to fix the problem.

Sen. Joyce Maker is pushing a bill, L.D. 134, that would streamline the process so people don’t lose their jobs or face other unfair hardships because of the delays, she said.

Gov. Paul LePage, meanwhile, wants to move responsibility for counseling and evaluating drunken-driving offenders from the DHHS to the Secretary of State’s Office.

“While we all know that operating under the influence is a serious crime, once the time has been served and the requirements have been met, the government shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of individuals trying to better themselves and move on with their lives,” Maker said.

Maker, a Republican from Calais, said she was notified of the backlog by a constituent. He had paid his fine, served his sentence and completed the mandatory DHHS Driver Education and Evaluation Program, but is still waiting for the department to send confirmation of his participation to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Maker said such delays in reinstating licenses could result in the loss of a job for anyone who needs a license for work or just needs to get to work.

“My constituent had a job on Jan. 4, and without his license, he couldn’t take it,” Maker said.

Under Maine law, a person charged with operating under the influence faces an immediate 30-day administrative license suspension. If convicted of a first offense, he or she faces a minimum 150-day driver’s license suspension and a fine of no less than $500. Subsequent convictions result in longer suspensions, higher fines and jail time. In Maine, as in most states, a driver with a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.08 percent is considered under the influence, although those driving with lower blood-alcohol levels or impaired by drugs can also be charged.

To regain driving privileges after a conviction, a driver 21 or older must complete the state’s 20-hour Driver Education and Evaluation Program, DEEP, which is designed to reduce the person’s likelihood of reoffending.

STAFF SHORTAGE CAUSING DELAYS

Maker’s bill would allow the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees Maine’s driver’s license system, to issue a provisional license based on documents showing the applicant has completed the OUI education program. The office would not need to wait for formal certification from the DHHS. Maker’s bill would pertain only to first-time offenders, according to a summary of the legislation.

The delays are being attributed to an office staffing shortage caused by illness and injury, according to a copy of a message by Roberta Mullen, a behavioral health intervention manager in the DHHS Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, that was provided to the Portland Press Herald by an anonymous source.

“My clinical staff has been decimated,” Mullen wrote. “The DEEP receives over 200 client cases per month for review, with one staff member in the office it’s impossible to keep up.”

DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards confirmed Thursday that there is a backlog. She said in an email that the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services is tapping clinicians from other divisions of the DHHS to try to clear it, but the work is complex.

“Each case must be thoroughly reviewed before the individual can be deemed successful in completing the program (and) thus be given approval to once again pilot a motor vehicle,” Edwards wrote.

LePage wants to take management of the OUI education program out of the DHHS. The governor’s two-year state budget proposal would transfer about $1.6 million of the program’s funding to the Secretary of State’s Office, and suggests that office would then be responsible for overseeing the program. The program has seven employees, including office staff and two substance abuse specialists.

Edwards said DHHS wanted to transfer the program “because DEEP is an education program for individuals who have lost their licenses due to OUI conviction. Given the secretary of state’s responsibility for qualifying and licensing drivers, this program makes more sense under the purview of that department.”

‘IT’S BECOMING A REAL PROBLEM’

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said the backlog is a relatively new problem that, under current law, he can do nothing to solve.

“It’s becoming a real problem for some folks,” Dunlap wrote in an email to the Press Herald. “They get convicted of OUI, pay all their fines, wait out a suspension period, and go through substance abuse counseling. The holdup here is that we can’t reinstate their licenses until DHHS, through the drug education and evaluation program (DEEP), certifies that they’ve completed the required counseling.”

Dunlap said the backlog is “a growing problem, and a bit of a mystery, because historically DEEP has been a great office to work with.”

Dunlap said he supports Maker’s bill as a short-term fix. He didn’t, however, understand why the LePage administration wants to transfer DEEP to his office. Substance abuse counseling is more a function for DHHS, he said.

“We would prefer to have some separation,” Dunlap wrote. “I’m not sure what that’s about.”

Maker’s measure has been submitted as an emergency bill, which would require two-thirds support of the Legislature for passage, but would take effect sooner than if filed as a conventional bill. The bill also calls for automatic repeal on Dec. 31.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

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