Capitol Notebook: Drug debates may dominate legislative session

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If faith is the triumph of hope over experience, lawmakers will need it this week as they return to Augusta to work on Maine’s problems, especially the state’s spiraling drug epidemic.

They will arrive in a tense atmosphere, with attacks raining down from the office of Gov. Paul LePage.

The top issue facing them is the disastrous drug epidemic, with overdose deaths from various drugs, including heroin and illicit prescription drugs, projected to claim 250 lives in 2015.

Several proposals by lawmakers to address this crisis will face an uphill fight against the governor, who does not feel drug treatment is effective, and argues against spending more money for it.

A bill to cover treatment, prevention and law enforcement was unveiled last month by legislative leaders. The bill, LD 2599, is being fast-tracked by legislative leadership. It gets a public hearing this week in front of the Appropriations Committee.

But according to newspaper reports, the $4.8 million bill proposes equal funding for treatment and law enforcement. The $2.4 million proposed for treatment includes $800,000 for access to treatment for the uninsured, and $600,000 to expand peer support treatment programs, as well as funds for a detox center in Bangor and the expansion of peer support recovery centers. The law enforcement side also includes money for 10 new drug enforcement agents, which LePage has already authorized with existing funds.

There is also a continued effort by two Republican senators to accept federal funds to increase the state’s Medicaid, or MaineCare, program as a way to help addicts pay for treatment. That proposal by Sens. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, is likely dead on arrival at the governor’s office.

Scores of other bills were proposed for the new session of the Legislature, but only a small number made the cut to be considered in the new session limited to “emergency” bills only, a flexible term.

The Legislative Council, the 10-member ruling body of the Legislature equally divided between the leaders of the two parties, reviewed many bill requests for this session and allowed only a few. Most of the proposals fail to advance on party-line, 5-5 votes. Bills must get some support from the other party in order to be considered in this session.

The council turned back a proposal by Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray, urging Congress to reject funding for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. It also rejected a bill that would have allowed towns and cities to ban guns in their municipal offices.

Several of the bills that did make the cut reacted to recent news events. Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, introduced a bill that would clarify the crime involved in a sexual advance between a school official and a student, resulting from a recent case where a school principal in Waterville was fired for an alleged sexual advance on a student.

Also advancing was a proposal by Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, a Republican farmer from Turner, which would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to adopt statewide pesticide standards, and prevent municipalities from adopting their own.

Some voters were upset last November by the videotaping of petition signers at the polls, and that brought a bill from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, that addresses the issue, although the details remain unclear.

LePage’s nominee to head the Department of Environmental Protection will also be up for Senate confirmation. Paul Mercer, a Maine Maritime Academy administrator, will appear before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 11.

If there is justification for any hope for the new session, it lies in the increasing collaboration of most of the legislative leadership, especially House Speaker Mark Eves, and Senate President Michael Thibodeau, who may be able to accomplish some goals despite the barrage that comes from the governor.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.