Maine lawmakers started off the second session of the 127th Maine Legislature listening to impassioned testimony from those on the front lines in dealing with the drug crisis in the state, which may have a record number of overdose deaths this past year. The testimony in support of LD 1537 was heard on January 5 by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety, Health and Human Services, and Appropriations committees. The bill would spend $2.4 million on 10 new drug investigators and an equal amount on treatment and recovery programs, but some addiction specialists say the plan also should include funds for methadone and Suboxone treatment. And Governor Paul LePage has threatened to veto the measure.
Among those testifying in support of the bill was Baileyville Police Chief Bob Fitzsimmons, who spoke about losing members of his community to drugs. "I see this first hand every day," he stated. "I've lost almost an entire generation of my 20 somethings to my 40 somethings to drugs. I'm here to ask you today for help for my county, my community, for my families and for me. I've been in the bedroom when the mother calls me because her son has overdosed, taking them off the bed, through the needles, and giving him CPR while she begs me to bring her son back. It doesn't work. I've lost too many people. I can't help them. I don't have the resources. I need you folks to help me get those resources."
The police chief in Bangor, Mark Hathaway, made a similar plea to lawmakers, stating, "Over the past 12 months, 11 people have died in hallways, apartments, in automobiles, due to complications associated with addiction. I desperately want to replicate the good work being done in Portland, in Scarborough, Damariscotta, Bath, West Paris. They all have collaborations and partnerships established with treatment facilities. We need this in Bangor. We need this in our region. We are desperate in our region."
The need for a detox center in Bangor was stressed by Patty Hamilton, public health director for the City of Bangor and chairwoman of the Community Health Leadership Board. "A message we've heard loud and clear was that hospitals, shelters and jails were not appropriate places for individuals to detox and usually resulted in the revolving door or overdose deaths. Hospital staff are not prepared to handle the many, many people coming in each shift. One ER nurse stated she regularly sees 203 people each shift, each requiring one‑on‑one care related to substance abuse or addiction. We heard over and over from police and EMS that they had no place to take people." She added, "As we heard from the district attorney, the governor and others, we need to address all aspects of the problems to have a measurable impact: law enforcement, prevention, treatment and recovery are all key pieces."
In addition to LD 1537, Washington County legislators have submitted bills that tackle both the treatment and enforcement aspects of the drug issue. LD 1496, sponsored by Rep. Joyce Maker of Calais, would provide funding for three new peer centers in the state to run peer support programs to help people in recovery from drug addiction. Two of the centers would have to be in underserved, rural areas. A hearing has not yet been scheduled on her bill.
Meanwhile, Senator David Burns of Whiting has submitted a bill that would establish the Maine State Police Drug Interdiction Unit. The unit, which would consist of at least three state police officers and a supervisor, would conduct drug trafficking patrols to prevent the trafficking of illegal drugs in the state.
Common Core repeal effort
Lawmakers also will be considering a number of bills on different topics, including the Common Core school standards, submitted by Washington County legislators.
The Common Core national education standards were debated around the country last year, but the Maine Legislature's Education Committee rejected efforts to repeal Common Core. Rep. Will Tuell of East Machias, though, has submitted another bill, LD 1492, to remove the Common Core standards from the state's system of learning results at the end of the 2016-17 school year. The bill would require the Department of Education to develop new statewide content standards and new assessments for English and math that are aligned with the new standards, along with new standards for social studies. The Education Committee will hold a hearing on the bill on Monday, January 11, at 1 p.m. in the room 202 of the Cross Building in Augusta.
That same week, the Education Committee will hold a hearing on a bill submitted by Rep. Joyce Maker to revise the educational personnel certification statutes. Along with updating language and making some other revisions in the law, the bill would direct the Department of Education to review all of the educational personnel certification rules and issue a report to the legislature by next January. The hearing on the bill will be held on Wednesday, January 13, at 1 p.m. in room 202 of the Cross Building.
Elvers and lobsters
Marine resource matters to be considered by the legislature during this session include the limited entry system for lobster licensing and the elver harvesting season. The Marine Resources Committee will be holding a hearing on Wednesday, January 13, on a bill submitted by Rep. Walter Kumiega of Deer Isle to provide flexibility in the designation of the closed period for elver harvesting. The bill would allow the commissioner of marine resources to set, for each season, the weekly 48-hour closed period for harvesting by rule, instead of having the closed period be established by law. The hearing will be held at 10 a.m. in room 206 of the Cross Building.
Other bills submitted by county legislators include one sponsored by Senator Burns that would provide ballistic vests for all active law enforcement officers in the state, along with dogs used in law enforcement. Other bills submitted by Burns would provide a 4% cost-of-living rate increase in MaineCare funding to adult family care homes and residential care facilities and also to nursing facilities under the MaineCare program. Another bill, LD 1526, would allow a state criminal justice agency to disclose intelligence and investigative record information to nongovernmental advocacy programs for people with mental illness.
Among the bills carried over from the previous session that affect Washington County are ones to authorize a $5.25 million bond issue to renovate the former Cutler naval base buildings to facilitate economic development; to support expanded capacity for breeding wild Atlantic salmon in Downeast rivers by funding hatcheries on the Narraguagus and Machias rivers and expanding the existing hatchery in Columbia Falls; to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and to permit the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe to exercise jurisdiction under the federal Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the federal Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.