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Maine gov. wants to divert funds to give raises to correctional officers

Governor wants to use $6.6M originally earmarked for the board to make the pay for state prison officers more competitive

By Kevin Miller
Portland Press Herald

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage is proposing to divert more than $13 million from the Maine Board of Corrections to offer pay raises to corrections officers at state prisons and jails.

The proposal – included in a package of suggested changes to his two-year budget submitted Thursday – is consistent with LePage’s harsh stance against a board that he views as ineffective and unaccountable. It also coincides with a spirited discussion in the Legislature about whether to remand control of the jails back to the counties.

In his budget “change package,” LePage proposed taking $6.6 million from the Board of Corrections’ operations’ fund per year and the state’s personnel fund to provide “parity between state correctional employees and the county jails employees who perform similar direct supervision.”

The proposal will now be reviewed by the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. But several lawmakers noted Thursday that it was premature to even consider the governor’s budget change before the Legislature decides whether to hand control of the jails back to the counties. On Wednesday, a legislative committee deadlocked in a 5-5 vote on the issue.

Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said correctional officers in state prisons are earning, on average, $2 less per hour than countyofficers and $4 per hour less than some other public safety officers.

“No matter what we do to recruit people, we can’t retain them,” Fitzpatrick told lawmakers on Thursday. “We are really approaching a crisis point at this time.” Not only are prisons running up their overtime budgets, he added, but staff are beginning to burn out.

The Board of Corrections was created by the Baldacci administration in its attempt to improve operations and save money by consolidating county and state jails. The board is effectively not functioning, however, because LePage refuses to fill enough vacancies to give the body a quorum.

Other changes proposed by LePage to his administration’s two-year budget include:

• Spending $3 million a year on “secure residential treatment facilities” to house clients who were referred by the criminal justice system to the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. The federal government has told the state that it may not regain federal certification at Riverview until more of these “forensic” clients are moved out of the facility.

• Moving 44 positions in the Department of Health and Human Services involved in water quality programs to the Department of Environmental Protection.

• Tightening the rules and requirements for forest management plans for properties that receive tax breaks under the state’s Tree Growth program.