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Committee votes to arm rangers, but revote expected

The bill to arm Maine’s forest rangers passed 11-2 at Wednesday’s work session, but that certainly wasn’t the last word or last vote of the Criminal Justice and Safety Committee.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Cumberland and co-chair, voted no (along with Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Cumberland) and noted that not only are there technical problems with the bill, but there is no fiscal note.

“I don’t want to vote on a bill today that will go down to Appropriations and die an inglorious death,” Gerzofsky said. “I want to work out the funding before we vote on a motion of ought to pass. Because I know it’s not leaving this room today. We’ve heard from the analyst more than once that this has to come back. And at that time, any member of this committee can bring it back to be discussed and revoted. And that will be the final vote.”

MFPC’s opposition to LD 297 is based on policy,  not funding, Executive Director Patrick Strauch stressed.

“To us, forest rangers are – first and foremost – fire fighters and that’s what we want to them to remain,” Strauch said. “The more they get pulled into law enforcement, the more they get pulled  away from their real mission and the more danger they will be in, because they will end up backing up state troopers, wardens and deputies.”

Cost was, however, clearly on committee member’s minds at Wednesday’s work session and for good reason. Funding turned out to be the deciding issue on bills to arm rangers in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Despite the lack of a fiscal note, there was at least a hint of the potential cost of LD 297 as John Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, presented four options to the committee:

  • Option 1, don’t arm rangers: “Total Cost – None.”
  • Option 2, the one the committee chose, would cost $142,837 to buy handguns, gun belts, holsters, ballistic vests and 1,500 rounds of ammunition for each ranger, and a 64-hour training program – “the very minimum,” Rogers called it. But that figure did not include “unknown salary costs, policy formulation costs, lock boxes, and ongoing training to be determined by the Maine Forest Service.”
  • Option 3, for $238,426, Rogers said, is the level that “part-time officers have to go through now – 120 hours of training, plus 80 hours of field training.” But like Option 2, it did not include “unknown salary costs, policy formulation costs, lock boxes, and ongoing training to be determined by the Maine Forest Service.”
  • Option 4, for $2.1 million, included putting all rangers through the Basic Law Enforcement Training Program (BLETP), “plus lock boxes, policy formulation costs, and ongoing training to be determined by the Maine Forest Service.”

It appears the committee intends to leave the policy formulation and ongoing training for the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee to sort out. They approved sending a letter to the ACF chairs suggesting “that they need to revisit the issue of the Forest Service’s mission,” said Rep. Mark N. Dion, D-Portland and co-chair.

dutremble

Sen. David Dutremble

Even though the majority voted for Option 2, committee members clearly were concerned about even its minimal price tag. For example, Sen. David E. Dutremble, D-York, suggested eliminating ballistic vests to save $69,412, adding “and then if rangers want to purchase their own vest, they could do that.”

Cost has played a pivotal role in the legislative fate of previous bills.  A bill scraped through the Maine House in 1997 – by just three votes – and cleared the Senate 22-10. The initial idea was that rangers would carry their own weapons and bear all training costs. But then a fiscal note appeared saying, “the rules that are adopted could result in significant General Fund costs. Rules that require all forest rangers to carry a department issued weapon could result in additional General Fund appropriations of as much as $200,000 for the first year of implementation and approximately $70,000 for every year thereafter.” The bill was “indefinitely postponed,” even though the state had a $183 million surplus that year.

In 1999, rangers came very close to getting guns with Department of Conservation funding, until “The Debacle,” as Ron Lovaglio, then DOC commissioner calls it. The ACF Committee directed Lovaglio to address ranger safety issues, including the process of arming them. Department policy already allowed rangers to carry firearms  with approval from supervisors to dispatch problem animals or deal with “special situations.” So Lovaglio told the Maine Forest Service to begin planning, buying equipment and training rangers. The funding was to come from “reallocating priorities,” meaning some other spending would be put off. But Lovaglio, who opposed (and still does) arming rangers, still hoped legislators would “rethink the equation” before rangers put a 9 mm Beretta on their belts. He got his wish in a way that surprised him – in a discussion of a bill to appropriate $125,000 to renovate Fort Knox.

Rep. Eliza Townsend, then House chair of the Appropriations Committee, asked Lovaglio why the Conservation Department could not pay to repair Fort Knox, but could find the money to buy guns. The department already had accumulated $200,000 to spend on arming rangers by taking money from several other fire control accounts. The cost of arming rangers then was estimated at from $250,000 to $500,000.

“It’s absolutely inappropriate to do it this way,” Townsend said. “I do not expect them to skim a certain amount of money off other accounts to pay for guns.”

In a joint order, legislators told the ACF Committee to sort out the questions and come back with a bill next session. They also ordered Lovaglio to sell the handful of guns and bulletproof vests already purchased.

In 2000, the cost was estimated at $280,000 to $500,000, and the House rejected arming rangers 106-34. Although the Senate passed a watered-down version of the bill, the House adhered to its vote and the bill died between the two houses.

In 2001, the House rejected the idea 116-22. According to the Bangor Daily News, “Once the House learned that the bill would cost $550,000 to implement, then $25,000 per year in additional training costs, the measure was quickly defeated.”

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