AUGUSTA — Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says Gov. Paul LePage needs the Legislature to approve construction of a new secure mental-health facility, even if he tries to move forward with a plan to build it on state land in Bangor.

LePage vowed to build the facility outside Augusta to avoid legislative oversight, but Mills said in a letter to lawmakers that the project needs some form of legislative approval no matter where it goes.

The $3.5 million, 21-bed facility would house people in state custody who have been found not criminally responsible for a crime because of mental illness, but who no longer need the kind of hospital-level care provided at the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. The new facility also is intended to free up much-needed psychiatric bed space at Riverview, which currently houses both civilly committed patients and those found not criminally responsible for crimes by a judge.

Although there is widespread agreement about the need for the facility, its construction has been delayed because of a political dispute between LePage and members of the Legislature.

Democrats on the Legislature’s Legislative Council have twice blocked the project under a provision in state law that requires the council to approve new construction on state property in the Capitol Area in Augusta. Lawmakers said they wanted an opportunity to review the details of the plan, including provisions to have it operated by a private contractor, before it moves forward.

To counter that review, LePage has since said he’s changed his mind about the location of the facility and instead would build it near the state’s other secure mental health hospital, the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor. LePage also has said his administration has provided the Legislature with reams of information on the proposal.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, expressed frustration about the delays Wednesday.

“I think if we had been more collaborative and the administration had been willing to share its thoughts with us, a foundation would be in the ground and the walls would be up on this thing by now, and it’s too bad that it’s not,” Katz said.

Also at stake is about $20 million in federal funds used to run Riverview. A federal audit in 2013 uncovered a number of problems at the center, some of which the administration says could be resolved by building the new facility.

The federal agency that oversees the funding revoked Riverview’s certification after the audit found problems, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients, improper record-keeping, medication errors and failure to report progress made by patients. It also determined that the 92-bed facility was improperly commingling patients who needed intense hospital treatment with those who no longer required hospitalization. In 2015, the state lost an effort to appeal the decertification of Riverview when a federal judge found the state missed a filing deadline.

PANEL WANTS FACILITY IN AUGUSTA

Although LePage has said he will move forward with the new center on state-owned land in Bangor, the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee learned Wednesday that LePage may not have the legal authority to build a new state facility without lawmaker approval.

“We are unaware of any statute giving the commissioner of health and human services or the Bureau of General Services authority to build a secure forensic facility on state-owned property in Augusta or Bangor,” Mills wrote in a three-page letter to the committee. “The statutes governing the budget and appropriations process require capital expenditures to be specifically identified in agencies’ budget submissions and in legislative appropriations. … We believe that legislative authorization to construct the forensic facility is required, regardless of where it is built.”

In her letter, Mills indicated the only location that could be approved for construction without a full legislative review process would be a facility within the Capitol Area, which is governed only by local ordinances and the Legislative Council, a panel made up of leadership from both parties.

The Appropriations Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to support having the Legislative Council approve construction of the new facility at the Riverview location in Augusta, although at least some committee members said their vote did not reflect a preference for locations.

“I can go along with it with the very clear clarification that we are not recommending any placement, whether it be Bangor, whether it be Augusta,” said Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner. “If it comes back and the governor asks (the Legislative Council) for approval to build it in Augusta, we are telling (the Legislative Council) that we approve it being built there, but other than that, our recommendation doesn’t go any further than that.”

It was unclear Wednesday whether LePage will reconsider his decision to move the facility to Bangor. In a letter to the Appropriations Committee released Wednesday, LePage said he would be willing to appear before a joint meeting of the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees to explain why he believes Bangor would now be a better location. But LePage also chastised lawmakers in the letter, saying he did not want to answer questions that already have been answered by him or Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

“I have no interest in participating in the usual dog-and-pony show that the Legislature likes to put on for the media and the lobbyists,” LePage wrote. “I am focused solely on building this facility in Bangor as quickly as possible so those suffering from mental illness can be properly cared for.”

DELAYS AND BYPASSING LEGISLATORS

In his letter, LePage said legislators have churned out “a nonstop, three-year drumbeat of politically motivated and often baseless attacks” against his administration’s oversight of Riverview, and that they have done nothing to help improve conditions. “It is this miserable record that forces me to do everything in my power to remove the Legislature from this process,” he wrote.

Katz, a member of the Appropriations Committee, hopes the facility can move forward, and stay in Augusta.

“I think everybody agrees that we need this new step-down facility. There seem to be good reasons for placing it in Augusta,” Katz said. “I would point out that, at least on a couple of occasions, representatives of the administration have said that it will cost at least $1 million more to site this in Bangor.”

Katz said some lawmakers in both parties want the Legislature to have a role in determining how the new facility is operated, but that should not delay the project.

“We can do that with the usual legislative process in the context of a specific bill, which will go through the legislative process. And if something passes, the governor certainly has a role in what happens to that bill afterwards. But that can wait,” Katz said. “What can’t wait is getting this thing up and running, and the quickest way to do that, the most sensible way to do that, is to build it in Augusta.”

Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, the lead Senate Democrat on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said LePage simply needs to follow the law as detailed in Mills’ letter.

“Our government has checks and balances for a reason, and it was always unreasonable for the governor to claim he had the authority to develop a new mental health facility behind closed doors and spend millions of dollars on its construction without any prior approval,” Chipman said. “Simply put, the governor is not the sovereign of the state of Maine. The Legislature is a co-equal branch of government and has an equal role to play in major decisions like these.”

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

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