The Maine Legislature’s only two Black members are calling on their colleagues to identify and act quickly on bills that will end systemic racism in the state.

Reps. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said as soon as the Legislature can return to Augusta it should accelerate its work on racial injustice.

“Racism is a public health emergency,” Hickman said in a prepared statement. He and Talbot Ross invited their colleagues to join them in offering recommendations on law changes to the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, which will continue its work starting Monday.

Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The 15-member commission, the result of a 2019 law, is expected to continue work it started earlier this year, but it has already offered 22 recommendations for steps to address racial disparities and discrimination to Gov. Janet Mills.

Mills has already acted on some of those recommendations, including providing the commission with $50,000 in funding so it could continue its work.

This week Mills also appointed her representatives to the commission, tapping the Rev. Kenneth I. Lewis Jr., senior pastor at Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Portland, and Isaiah Reid of Kingfield, a senior at the University of Maine at Farmington. The governor said she wanted to make the state “a place of equal opportunity for all.”

“Maine can no longer ignore the twin pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19,” said Talbot Ross, who also chairs the commission. “While the virus is new, it is just the latest demonstration of the racial inequities that have shaped every aspect of our lives dating back before the founding of this country.”

Maine has the nation’s largest racial disparity in coronavirus cases, with statistics showing that members of the state’s small but growing Black communities are contracting COVID-19 at a rate more than 20 times that of white residents.

In mid-June about 28 percent of the Maine’s positive COVID-19 cases were among Black residents – who make up just 1.4 percent of the state’s total population.

In 2019, the progressive Maine Center for Economic Policy, which also holds a seat on the new commission, released a fact sheet on racial disparities in Maine that showed, among other things, that people of color – even if they had equal levels of education – earned far lower wages, owned far fewer homes and businesses and were six times more likely to be imprisoned for the same crimes as their white counterparts.

Scores of bills were left unfinished and in limbo when the Legislature adjourned abruptly and Mills declared a civil state of emergency in mid-March as the virus began to spread in Maine. Mills said she would call lawmakers back to Augusta to finish their work and to continue the state’s response to the pandemic when it was safe again for large groups to gather.

The Maine Constitution does not allow the Legislature to convene or take votes remotely and it remained unclear when Mills might bring lawmakers back to work. While some key committees have been able to meet using social distancing and video conferencing, they are unable to create legislation, which requires procedural votes from the full bodies in both the House and the Senate.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Mills’ office said she would work with legislative officers on convening a special session, but the timing would depend on logistics and measures to protect the health of the public, lawmakers and legislative staff that are the responsibility of the Legislature.

One factor in the decision will be an August report from the state’s Revenue Forecasting Committee, which will give lawmakers the numbers they will need to keep the state budget balanced.

Top Democrats have pledged to prioritize bills that address racial injustice when the Legislature reconvenes. Beyond the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said they would establish a task force on racism to work with the commission.

“Inequality in accessing health care or high-quality education, along with increased rates of incarceration or murder are just a few of the issues disproportionately affecting people of color,” Gideon said.

Jackson said it would take time to create policies to effectively change policies that have embedded racism in American society.

Both he and Gideon thanked Talbot Ross and Hickman for taking the lead on the issue at the State House.

“Systemic racism in this state and in this country is the product of more than a century of legalized discrimination and discriminatory policies. It’s not something we can fix overnight,” Jackson said. “If we’re serious about righting centuries worth of wrongs and creating a better state for our neighbors, we need a thoughtful long-term strategy led by people of color.”

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