Report: Race discussions need to be part of legislation


PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Maine lawmakers can start addressing racial disparities by passing more than two dozen bills that are already awaiting action, a panel said.

Those 26 bills that deserve immediate attention can begin erasing gaps in wages, health and incarceration rates, among other things, according to the first report by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

The report, released Monday, concluded that discussions around race “have never been a central part of legislation” even though data in the report demonstrates Maine is not immune from institutional discrimination that affects American Indians and racial minorities.

“For far too long, we have allowed our laws to uphold a system that produces disproportionate outcomes for racial, indigenous and Maine tribal populations,” Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Democratic lawmaker and chairperson of the commission, wrote in a statement. “Legislation alone will not end these disparities, but it plays a critical role.”

The commission decided this summer as Black Lives Matter protests were erupting nationwide following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police to focus its first report on current legislation. Its findings on inequities in wages, incarceration and healthcare were based on previously available research.

Among the report’s findings: Black Mainers are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white Mainers, and 20 times more likely to contract the coronavirus.

Three-quarters of white Mainers own their home compared to fewer than a quarter of Black Mainers, and minority women with college degrees earn only slightly more than white men with high school diplomas, it said.

The report recommends that Maine lawmakers begin taking racial disparities into account in dealing with all future legislation.

“We are proclaiming that we will not allow our lawmaking to continue to feed a system of oppression. This report is a guide to changing how Maine legislates, and if its recommendations are followed, it’s a path to creating equity for all who call Maine home,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, a Democratic lawmakers who’s Black.

The 26 bills that should be adopted right away deal with rights and needs, criminal justice, education, workers’ rights, housing, and tribal sovereignty, the report said. The panel also recommends that lawmakers adopt another 20 bills, but those aren’t of as high a priority.

But it’s unlikely those bills will be considered in the immediate future. Lawmakers adjourned in March amid the pandemic, and there’s no agreement on returning to session.

The ACLU of Maine issued a statement in support of the panel and its work.

“Maine is not immune to systemic racism. Centering racial equity in our policymaking is a key way to address entrenched racism,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine.

Moving forward, legislative should have a list of “racial impact statements” for all legislation, Beyea said.

The commission was created by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who provided some of her discretionary money to fund it.

It includes stakeholders like members of Maine’s tribes, organized labor and faith-based organizations. The group met with 55 lawmakers as part of its work before releasing the report on Monday.