The arrival of summer marks the end of another tumultuous Maine legislative session. The legislative chambers now stand empty, but serious issues that Maine families are grappling with every day remain unaddressed.

Instead, this session saw a bloc of extreme legislators halt real progress, focusing instead on things like threatening to shut down state government and attacks on women’s reproductive rights.

Maine can and should do better.

Mainers are clear about their legislative priorities, even if lawmakers often seem confused. Poll after poll confirms that most people in our state care about economic security. They want to see better-paying jobs that provide paid leave and benefits, investment in essential services like education for our children, retirement security for seniors so they can age at home in dignity, access to affordable health care and the protection of women’s access to safe, legal abortions.

Women – who are the most affected by economic issues like low wages, outdated workplace policies that deny women paid leave, a lack of affordable child care and attacks on access to health care and reproductive rights – know the importance of these priorities.

In Maine, like every other state in the union, women are paid less than men. The average median income for women in Maine is just $36,000, only about 84 percent of what their male counterparts earn. A recent Institute for Women’s Policy Research study shows that Maine’s wage gap will persist until 2057, unless lawmakers (or voters) take action.

Maine women lack guaranteed access to earned sick days or paid leave to care for their families, are denied specific protection against pregnancy discrimination on the job and often aren’t able to access affordable child care so they can earn a living for their families and contribute to the economy.

Full-time child care for an infant in Maine costs an average of $9,360, 12.3 percent of an average two-parent family’s income and 41.5 percent of a single mother’s annual median income.

These issues affect women, families, communities and the economy every day. These are the problems that people in Maine want addressed by state lawmakers, who have the power to remedy them by passing legislation that would level the playing field and create fair opportunities for all women and families to prosper.

Instead of addressing these very real challenges facing Maine families, conservative Republicans in the Legislature spent an alarming amount of energy over the past few months finding sneaky ways to restrict access to abortion and secure bigger tax breaks for the wealthy.

They voted against even some of the most basic pro-family policies, like increasing the minimum wage (L.D. 92), expanding funding for child care (L.D. 977) and increasing funding for reproductive health care and family planning services (L.D. 319).

Instead of debating how our state can move forward to create more jobs, raise wages, make sure parents can get enough time off to care for sick children or elders, fund education and expand health coverage – the things most Mainers want to hear about and find solutions to – far too many legislators instead spent months trying to advance legislation that would take women in our state backward and leave families worse off than they are now.

But even with the Legislature’s failure to address these issues, there’s still some hope. Volunteers across the state are collecting signatures this summer to place a minimum-wage increase on the 2016 ballot.

The citizen’s initiative would increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2017 and then by $1 a year until it reaches $12 in 2020. It would then rise at the same rate as the cost of living.

The referendum policy also increases the minimum wage for tipped workers, increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers until it reaches the same level for all other minimum-wage workers by 2024.

Increasing wages for tipped workers is especially important to anyone who truly cares about closing the wage gap. Tipped workers (like restaurant servers) are mostly women and are among the lowest-paid minimum-wage workers in Maine and nationally. Compared to other workers, tipped workers are over twice as likely to fall below the federal poverty line and nearly three times as likely to qualify for food stamps.

Something is very wrong when hardworking women who serve food to our tables every day at restaurants far too often don’t earn enough put food on the tables of their own families.

It’s time for the Maine Legislature to stand with women and our families for the economic policies and reproductive care that will improve our lives, and if they won’t act on these vital priorities for their constituents, we can make change happen ourselves, at the ballot box.

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