A commission formed to help the state end racial disparities and discrimination is urging Gov. Janet Mills to use federal CARES Act funds to support a response to the COVID-19 pandemic for minority populations in Maine, which have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

The recommendation was among five steps that the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations called for in a letter to the governor released Thursday.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland said, “The events of recent weeks reaffirm the importance of this commission.”  Steve Collins/Sun Journal

The panel also wants Mills to take action to make changes to the state’s Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act, as recommended by the Legislature this year, and provide funding for the commission to function. In addition, the panel said the state should begin broad data collection and publication for all state agencies that includes racial statistics and support the formation of a “truth and reconciliation” process that would be the charge of the commission and the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“The events of recent weeks reaffirm the importance of this commission,” Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, the interim chair of the commission, said in a statement. The panel was created by the Legislature with a bill that Mill signed into law in June 2019.

The commission is an independent entity with a mission to examine racial disparities across systems in Maine and improve opportunities and outcomes for historically disadvantaged racial, indigenous and tribal populations in Maine.

Its members include representative of the Legislature appointed by the speaker of the House and the Senate president, as well as representatives of the federally recognized tribal nations in Maine, and advocates for social justice and the poor.

According to the letter, Mills has yet to appoint her representatives to the permanent commission, which has already held several meetings.

A different task force earlier this year backed a sweeping list of reforms for the state’s Indian Claims Settlement Act, passed into law in 1980.

A bill meant to implement the reforms was held over to the next lawmaking session, after the Legislature hurriedly adjourned as Maine began its response to the coronavirus in early March.

Among 22 key reforms in the legislation, the measure would restore some of the sovereignty that tribal leaders say was taken from them with the 1980 law. These steps include, among other things, affirming the tribes’ right to regulate natural resource activities on their lands; exercise jurisdiction over certain crimes; tax nonmembers on tribal lands; and operate casinos under compacts negotiated with the state and federal governments.

Lindsay Crete, the press secretary for Mills, said Thursday the governor was working on making her appointments to the commission and would do so.

“The Commission’s letter is a welcome beginning to the constructive dialogue that Maine must have to more fully understand the disparities that exist in our state,” Crete said. “We look forward to reviewing these recommendations, engaging with the Commission, and working with the Legislature and partners throughout Maine in the months to come to examine what can be done to ensure that Maine truly is an inclusive and welcoming state that provides a fair shot and opportunity for all.”

Talbot Ross did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. She and Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, are the only African-American lawmakers in the Legislature.

Hickman said he couldn’t speak for the commission but could speak as a black Mainer.

“When you don’t have a lot of people of color in a state that is mostly white, you and I both know that our concerns are easy to gloss over,” Hickman said. “Because there are just not enough of us here to do anything about it. But now that young, white people are marching in the streets in Maine – for racial justice, now the people in power have to stand up and be counted.”

The commission’s six-page letter to Mills details areas where Maine has fallen short and points to examples of racial disparities, including the higher rates of incarceration for black Mainers compared to white Mainers and a higher COVID-19 infection rate among black and African-American residents.

The recommendations come in the fallout and protests that emerged following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, after the officer arresting Floyd knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes as Floyd pleaded he couldn’t breathe. The officer has since been charged with murder.

In its letter the commission says it is encouraged by Mills’ recent statement that she hopes the panel will help her administration better understand and proactively address the “underlying factors that contribute to racial disparities.”

“The Permanent Commission is one way we can ensure this historic moment becomes a sustained and thoughtful set of changes and structural reforms,” said Maulian Dana, Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and a member of the commission.

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