Appropriations met to consider off session matters including the recent drug summit, progress on establishing the cold case unit, changes to the Division of the Blind and Visually Impaired, a confirmation hearing and questions for the Departments of Health & Human Services and Transportation.
No Commissioners nor other representatives of the departments agreed to be present. Though the Governor made an unannounced visit.
AG Mills presented thoughts and updates regarding the Governor’s drug summit held in August.
Work now is ongoing with the Maine Opiate Coalition
3 subgroups are meeting around the state
- Treatment including medication assisted treatment
- Law Enforcement
Then the Governor joined the audience. Rep. Timberlake asked him to speak at roughly 39 minutes into the meeting.
Highlights of the Governor’s comments*
The Governor shared that the administration isn’t using the summit to develop a comprehensive strategy to address addiction.
He claims that he wants to ask leadership to meet next week to ask for more resources otherwise he will use the National Guard. (This is the first indication of this to Leadership)
The goal is not to incarcerate addicts.
Focus of the administration is supply side.
When asked what resources he wants to ask Leadership to provide the Gov responds that he wants 10 more agents, more prosecutors and judges.
Addressing treatment the Governor claims there are no resources. He claims that Doctors want General Practitioners to provide these services. Testimony regarding the Governor’s proposal to eliminate reimbursement for methadone directly contradicts this claim.
Acknowledged the need for inpatient treatment
The Governor renewed his call to eliminate methadone
The Governor will not submit supplemental budgets
Governor will not adhere to budgets but will instead spend until he runs out and then “let you know” he then will lay people off
Intends to call National Guard as law enforcement officers
The Governor departed approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes into the meeting.
*These are not direct quotes. Please refer to audio for direct quotes
AG Mills shared information with the committee about the ongoing work to staff and activate the cold case unit as funded in the biennial budget. Hiring is ongoing as is work to coordinate resources.
Sen. Valentino introduced the concerns of families with communications issues. AG Mills noted that victim’s advocates are to be in place to assist with communication.
Division of the Blind and Visually Impaired (DVBI)
Roughly 1 hour and 40 mins into the meeting the committee turned to address changes to the Department of Labor’s Division of the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Over the summer a growing chorus of concerns has been brought forward about changes in services to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Some of those change:
- The current director of DVBI is on administrative leave
- The department has notified the deputy director that their position is being eliminated
- 4.5 positions have been eliminated
- A belief that the Administration is seeking to merge some functions with Vocational Rehabilitation and disburse other functions among various departments
Rep. McClellan of Standish, in his role as Executive Director of the Maine Statewide Independent Living Council noted that the consumers following him may contradict the narrative that there are no problems with the administration’s actions.
McClellan asserted that the budget and staffing, “may not add up”.
Mel Clarrage Chair of the State Independent Living Council and the President of the Maine Federation of the Blind shared his perspective.
Kathy Depres, Chair of the State Rehabilitation Council (SRC) asserted that poor planning has created the current situation. She also noted that it is difficult to believe that a division can make a $1M mistake in a $4M budget. The SRC was not informed of shortfalls until June. Again, the shortfall was one quarter of the budget.
Bud Lewis, former director of DVBI shared his belief that poor budget planning has occurred.
A series of consumers presented their view that services have diminished and that the Administration is not being transparent about its plans for services provided by DVBI.
Confirmation Hearing for the Maine Public Employees Retirement System
Brian Noyes of South Freeport has been nominated by the Governor to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. The committee unanimously recommended the confirmation of this appointment to the full Senate.
Questions for the Department of Human Services
Rep. Sanborn raised the inefficient nature of the current written question and answer exchange with the Department. She highlighted instances where questions have been asked repeatedly without full and adequate answers from the department.
Disposition of the Former Transportation Property in Augusta
At the request of Sen. Katz the committee entertained questions for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services (DAFS) regarding recently reported plans to consolidate state services at a to be leased location adjacent to the Capital campus. Questions were raised linking this proposal to a plan aired during the session.
Questions for the Department of Transportation
Rep. Rotundo asked that the following questions be forwarded to the Department of Transportation.
Questions from Appropriations Committee to DOT Commissioner Bernhardt
There are two areas of concern – cuts to the Regional Planning Offices and the proper implementation of the Lewiston-Auburn Rail Study. The questions about the Regional Planning Offices are appropriate for us because the Transportation Committee is not currently meeting, and the Lewiston-Auburn Rail Study is included in the biennial budget.
Area 1 – Cuts to the Regional Planning Offices (RPOs)
The RPOs historically have been very involved in the planning process for state transportation projects.
DOT is planning on drastically cutting their funding– by 75% in the case of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments (from $50,000 to $12,500).
There is a long standing relationship between DOT and the RPOs – it one of the only mechanisms for municipalities to provide input into DOT planning for future projects.
What has changed to justify this change in policy at DOT?
In order to effectively plan for regional transportation projects the RPOs rely on stable funding from the DOT. If the DOT is concerned about how the funding to the RPOs is being spent, couldn’t they simply work with the RPOs on improving and strengthening guidelines rather than drastically cutting funding?
The RPOs are about the only avenues that municipalities have for input into the planning process. How is the DOT going to continue to meet federal requirements for local review and input for transportation planning if the RPOs are being cut out of the process?
Area 2 – The Lewiston- Auburn Passenger Rail Planning Study
Parts Part A-71 (pages 589-90) and Section YY (pages 648-649) of the biennial budget (PL 267) call for DOT to study and develop a plan for passenger rail service between the cities of Lewiston and Auburn and the Amtrak Downeaster service.
The cities of Lewiston and Auburn have now paid their match to allow the project to move forward. The legislation clearly states that it shall develop the plan in consultation with the cities of Lewiston and Auburn.
It is our expectation that DOT will meet with the appropriate city officials in Lewiston and Auburn to work on the details of this project. The Committee would like to know the following:
What specific plans does DOT have to work with the cities of Lewiston and Auburn to live up to the language of the law?
We would also like periodic updates on steps to be taken to work with Lewiston and Auburn throughout the project. , including a date for the first meeting.