It has been five years since Gov. King issued a challenge to Washington County: With planning under way to overhaul Maine’s antiquated and inefficient prison system, they needed to make the case for Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport to be included in those plans.
They made it. Despite being located in a hand-me-down military complex ill-suited to corrections work, the minimum-security DCF is one of the most efficient operations in the system. It has the lowest staff turnover rate. The community-service projects undertaken by inmates produce tens of millions of dollars in benefits to communities in one of the state’s poorest regions. The 60-plus jobs, with decent pay and benefits, are vital to that region. A prison overhaul plan that put all facilities and jobs in the more affluent parts of the state was shortsighted and unfair.
Although it was always troubling that any region should have to argue for something any governor could research and recognize as proper and sensible, credit this governor for acknowledging an argument made well. His proposed $118 million bond package includes a $43 million component for homeland security and corrections, of which $25 million is earmarked for construction of a new prison in Machias and for renovation of a facility in South Windham.
Now the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has taken up the bond package. Unfortunately, the necessary process of thoughtful review and revision seems to have succumbed to fitful lurching. Late last week, the committee indicated it had reached broad consensus for an $82 million package, one that completely gutted the governor’s proposal for homeland security and corrections.
When the governor presented his proposal in February, this component was criticized by
several committee members for lumping the always tough sell of prison construction in with the can’t-miss issue of anti-terrorism measures. During its deliberations – the few held in public – it was anti-terrorism that was subjected to the appallingly weak argument that Maine cannot prevent all acts of terrorism so it may as well not try to prevent any.
Early this week, the committee indicated it had reached narrow consensus for a $130-million package. This time, corrections construction was lumped in with school construction, perhaps a more logical fit. Homeland security was restored, though reduced, and lumped in with economic development and construction of cultural and social-service facilities, a fit that defies logic. Like the $82-million package, it includes $10 million for University of Maine research and development plus $6 million for private sector R&D, important investments missing from the governor’s package. On the other hand, both include money, $15 million to $20 million, for vaguely defined, untested economic development programs. Outside of this narrow consensus there remains one faction still married to the $82 million plan, another says it soon will present an even better plan that falls somewhere between $82 million and the governor’s $118 million.
All this lurching this late in the session is the normal give-and-take of legislating run amok, it suggests that the Appropriations Committee began shoving numbers around without first coming to any agreement on what principals should guide state borrowing. It is not too late to adopt some principals – one should be that the people of Washington County already made the case for Downeast Correctional Facility and should not have
to make it again.