AUGUSTA — A bill to fund the Downeast Correctional Facility for another year faltered Thursday after House Republicans largely opposed extending a lifeline to the empty Washington County prison.

The House gave initial approval to the bill, but the 87-59 vote was well short of the two-thirds margin needed to pass it as an “emergency measure” or to override a likely veto from Gov. Paul LePage. While the bill subsequently passed the Senate on a 31-3 vote, the closer House vote raises serious questions about whether backers will be able to peel off enough Republicans to salvage the bill.

“This was a slap in the face of common sense and values,” Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said on the Senate floor after accusing opponents of spreading misinformation prior to the House vote. “We talk a lot about ethics and values, … but what was said was not true.”

The LePage administration transferred 63 inmates and delivered layoff notices to nearly 40 prison staff members last Friday during an unannounced, pre-dawn operation that sparked a political firestorm.

The bill under consideration, L.D. 1704, would provide $5.5 million in funding to Downeast Correctional during the fiscal year that begins July 1 while studying the impacts of closing the minimum-security facility. But there is also pending litigation in Maine’s Superior Court – brought by Washington County’s commissioners – that seeks to block the LePage administration from closing and dismantling the prison.

The funding bill could become part of that legal case if Washington County’s commissioners as well as Attorney General Janet Mills argue that LePage overstepped his authority by moving to close a facility funded by the Legislature.

The fate of the Machiasport facility appears increasingly enmeshed in the complex political dynamics that have dominated the State House in recent years, however.

While 14 of the 18 Republicans in the Senate voted to fund Downeast Correctional for another year, 58 of the 71 members of the House Republican caucus – a group closely aligned with LePage – voted against the bill. All of the Democrats present Thursday in both chambers supported the bill.

LePage has been pushing to close the 150-bed prison for several years, arguing the aging facility is too costly, inefficient and increasingly unnecessary because of enhanced capacity at other prisons. House Republicans raised those concerns while suggesting bill supporters were merely postponing the inevitable by seeking to keep open a facility that was also eyed for closure during the administrations of Govs. Angus King and John Baldacci.

“Postponing the inevitable year after year is not helping the system over the long term, it is not helping the folks in Washington County and it is not helping the employees who work there,” said Rep. Elsie Espling, R-New Gloucester, the assistant House minority leader. “We need to move past this and we need to improve this. … We need to do the right thing now. I know it’s not easy, but sometimes doing the right thing is difficult.”

Other opponents accused bill supporters of a lack of transparency or trying to rush through the bill, even though it was the subject of a lengthy public hearing on Jan. 29, two work sessions and several committee votes.

But Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, said LePage has failed to live up to his pledge to build a new work-release facility in Washington County. Tuell was among several supporters who pointed out that the Legislature voted last year on a budget that continues funding the Machiasport prison through June 30. By emptying the prison and laying off employees by March 30, LePage was effectively ignoring the will of the Legislature, Tuell said.

“Do I grant that the chief executive has the right to transfer prisoners? I certainly do and I think that right needs to be preserved,” Tuell said. “But I must say that the way this has happened was an end-run around the entire process that we have.”

Other bill supporters accused opponents of abandoning earlier agreements to build a facility in Washington County.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the only reason his district received legislative approval for $100 million in improvements at Maine Correctional Center is because that measure was coupled with the proposed work-release facility Down East.

“We agreed, we shook hands and we became part of it so a lot of us feel morally obliged, ethically obliged to follow through on what we said,” Diamond said. “So for me and, I think, others, there’s no choice. We made the deal.”

Sen. Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat and former Cumberland County sheriff, said staff members at Downeast Correctional were “treated as targets of a police action” when armed state troopers and Department of Corrections officers were sent to clear the low-security prison. Dion called the actions “egregious” and “an insult to everyone else in the system who has taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state.”

The bill faces additional votes in the House, although it was unclear Thursday when that would happen.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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