AUGUSTA — Ending racial discrimination should be a central consideration for all new lawmaking in Maine, the leaders of new commission set up to examine the status of minority groups in the state said Monday.

The Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations also identified 26 pending legislative bills that have the potential to combat racial disparities but were left in limbo when the Legislature adjourned abruptly as the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Maine in mid-March.

Among those bills is one that would provide a sweeping overhaul to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. Others given a high priority include a bill establishing universal public pre-school programs, a measure setting aside portions of federal block grants for vulnerable communities, and a proposal that broadens opportunities for people convicted of low-level criminal offenses to restrict access to records of their criminal history.

“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, D-Portland, said at a commission news conference. “Legislation alone will not end these disparities, but it plays a critical role.”

The commission, chaired by Talbot Ross, was established under state law in 2019, well before the recent protests over police slayings of unarmed Blacks that have disrupted dozens of American cities this summer, including Portland.

Talbot Ross pointed out that Black Mainers are six times more likely to be incarcerated and 20 times more likely to contract COVID-19.

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

She was joined by other members of the commission, including the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, an appointee of Gov. Janet Mills, and Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s tribal ambassador to the state, at a news conference announcing the recommendations.

The commission reviewed a total of 454 bills that were left on the table when the Legislature adjourned in March, identifying 26 as top priorities for lawmakers to finish if they were to return for a special session before the Nov. 3 election or before the next Legislature is sworn in in December. The commission also identified another 20 bills that have the potential to improve racial equity.

In its report to the Legislature, the commission also recommends an ongoing focus to include the issue of racial inequity as a key consideration in all lawmaking. The panel also urges the Legislature adopt a process for providing a racial impact statement for all new bills, as well as sustained financial support for the panel’s work.

“Building awareness takes resources,” Lewis said. “This work cannot carry forward without human capital and financial resources commitment. Awareness is not enough. Awareness does not deconstruct a long constructed process that has impacted racial and indigenous populations in an adverse way. We must devise an anti-racist posture in the construction of legislation.”

Under the law that created it, the commission is authorized to provide advice and guidance to all three branches of state government: the governor’s office, the judicial branch and the Legislature.

The bills the commission has placed a priority on focus on basic needs, basic rights, criminal justice reform, education, health care reform, housing and homelessness, juvenile justice and tribal sovereignty.

“Indigenous sovereignty and the liberation of all other vulnerable populations are so intertwined,” Dana said. “The rest of society will only walk forward in a good way, if all of these vulnerable groups are supported and empowered and uplifted and treated with justice. We are not in a state of justice at this moment.”

Rep. Craig Hickman Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Talbot Ross is one of only two Black lawmakers in the Maine Legislature, which includes 151 House members and 35 Senators. She is seeking her third consecutive tw0-year term, running unopposed for House District 40.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, the only other Black lawmaker in the Legislature, also joined the news conference. Hickman has served four consecutive terms in the House and is unable to run again because of term limits. He said the work of the commission puts Maine in a position to become a national leader on racial justice issues, and that policy makers were being presented a “profound opportunity.”

There is only one other Black candidate running for the Legislature this cycle. Dr. Richard Evans, a surgeon and Air Force veteran, is a Democratic candidate in a three-way race for House District 120, which includes the towns of Atkinson, Brownville, Dover-Foxcroft, Medford and Milo in north central Maine. Evans is hoping to unseat incumbent Rep. Norm Higgins, a former Republican who left the party in 2017 to become an independent, citing sharp partisan divisions in the Legislature. Also in the race is Republican candidate Chad Perkins.

Other groups involved with racial justice issues praised the commission’s work on Monday.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said the commission’s report shows the effects of racism are apparent in every “aspect of life for Black Mainers, tribal members, people of color and immigrants.”

“Maine is not immune to systemic racism,” Beyea said in a prepared statement. “Centering racial equity in our policymaking is a key way to address entrenched racism. Looking forward, we support the adoption of racial impact statements for pending legislation, so that we know about disparate racial effects before we adopt legislation.”

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