Statehouse Report: Lawmakers put writing on the wall for Long Creek

Legislature also shows support for tribal gaming, parole restoration study

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With the end of this year’s first legislative session, the Long Creek Youth Development Center is on a path toward closing, a tribal casino bill came surprisingly close to enactment, and a legislative commission studying parole is back on track.

Lawmakers aren’t quite done; they’ve returned this week to consider a raft of vetoes by Gov. Janet Mills, and to distribute nearly $1 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan enacted by Congress.

But work on legislation is essentially done.

Long Creek turned out to be one of the biggest fights. Democrats mustered majorities in both the House and the Senate behind first-term Rep. Grayson Lookner’s bill, LD 1668, to close the youth prison by 2023 – the first time a closing plan had reached the floor. But Mills vetoed the bill.

Lookner, a Portland Democrat, said he considers it a “tremendous victory” for advocates of closing, and that “this is the closest we’ve ever come.” Although the veto “was not the result we were hoping for,” he said he’s convinced the Mills administration “has seen the writing on the wall” and has changed course.

What lawmakers and the administration did agree to was moving an amended version of another bill, LD 546, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland. The text was moved into the state supplemental budget signed into law on July 1. 

Brennan said the legislation covers all juveniles – about 25 – currently held at Long Creek: detainees whose cases haven’t yet been heard, and those incarcerated after being sentenced by a judge.

Detention at Long Creek should soon be a thing of the past. The Department of Corrections is already using two pre-trial facilities: a transition house on the Long Creek grounds in South Portland, and another in Auburn.

DOC will also submit plans for at least two new secure facilities, one likely at Long Creek and one in Bangor, that could be constructed as early as next year.

The department will report to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in February, which Brennan said is “a hard deadline” that should satisfy critics’ concerns about the pace of change.

The budget agreement cuts staffing at Long Creek by 13 positions, most of them shifted to new facilities. Brennan said “there’s no question” Long Creek’s days are numbered since no one favors continuing operations for 25 juveniles in a facility designed for 200.

Brennan, who during an earlier stint in the Legislature was involved in closing both the Pineland Center in New Gloucester and the Augusta Mental Health Institute, said “you’re not going to save any money (during the transition). In fact, there’s evidence we’re still not spending enough” on community services for mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Lookner, who serves on the Criminal Justice Committee, said he’ll be watching closely. And he praised the “broad campaign, organized by former residents themselves” that ultimately prompted action.

Tribal casinos

Consideration of LD 1626, a huge bill proposing changes to the 1980 Settlement Act governing relations between the state and Maine’s four recognized Indian tribes, was postponed to the 2022 session.

So it was a surprise toward the end of the session when tribal representatives asked Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, to advance a bill he sponsored, LD 554, allowing tribes to acquire trust land that could be used for casinos.

“They had had some discussions with the governor’s office that suggested it could move forward,” Collings said. He then sought help from the attorney general’s office to “completely rewrite” the bill so it addressed the governor’s concerns.

While the AG didn’t explicitly support the amended bill, “they were extremely helpful and cooperative” in drafting it, Collings said.

The bill achieved impressive majorities in both chambers, with the initial House vote of 97-40 greater than the two-thirds necessary to override a veto (Collings noted that nearly two dozen Republicans initially favored the bill). In the Senate, a 22-13 vote fell along party lines.

When the bill reached Mills’ desk, however, she vetoed it, and enough House Republicans changed sides to sustain the veto.

Collings remains puzzled about the veto message: “The governor never really said what was wrong with the bill. There just were no specifics.”

Nevertheless, he considers it a high-water mark in the long campaign to provide rights exercised by tribes in all other states under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed by Congress in 1988.

Four tribal casino bills were vetoed by Gov. John Baldacci from 2005-2008, but in those cases, it was Democratic leaders who switched sides to sustain vetoes, Collings said. This time, “Democratic leaders stood firm, and we got great support from the committee chairs, too.”

Collings said this won’t be the last word, and that the issue will be back next year.

Parole restoration

The parole bill, LD 842 – sponsored by Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship – appeared near death after the Senate rejected a study. It was revived through a complicated series of maneuvers that saw the bill traveling back and forth between House and Senate nine times.

After resting on the Legislative Council’s “study table” for two weeks, the council and then lawmakers approved the required appropriation of $2,750 on July 19. The bill now goes to Mills for her signature.

Appointments to the 13-member study committee require five legislators, including two Republicans and two Democrats. There will be room for one independent House member, with Evangelos fitting the description.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter, and author since 1984. His latest book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit  douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail [email protected].