The Maine Legislature is launching a pilot program to assess how certain bills and policy proposals would affect people of color and other historically disadvantaged racial populations.

Racial impact statements are expected to be drafted for seven bills in the upcoming legislative session. The pilot could be expanded next year, depending on costs associated with conducting the research.

The purpose of the statements is to address what many see as systemic racism in state government by considering whether a proposed new law would help, hurt or have no impact on historically disadvantaged racial populations.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The effort stems from a new law championed by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, the assistant house majority leader who has led a small group of legislators in building the pilot program. The bill, which came after a national uprising demanding racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills, who said understanding racial impacts was “important work.”

“It’s very exciting,” Talbot Ross said Friday. “I’m really grateful we will all be on this journey together to learn what will have an impact, and that’s the key word in racial impact statements – it’s impact.”

The Legislative Council Subcommittee to Implement a Racial Impact Statement Process Pilot met for the fifth and final time on Friday. A final report is still being drafted.

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Maine is one of nine states to either allow some form of racial impact statements or take steps to allow them, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group advocating for prison reform. Nine other states have taken up legislation regarding racial impact statements, but have not moved forward.

The process for requesting a racial impact statement varies by state, according to research provided to lawmakers that designed the pilot program. In Colorado, the speaker, president and minority leaders can request “demographic notes” for up to five bills each. In Connecticut, it takes a majority vote of a committee to receive a racial and ethnic impact statement. In Florida, an individual member may request one.

On Friday, the Legislative Council’s subcommittee approved a list of seven bills to be included in the study, which will be conducted by faculty and professional researchers across the University of Maine system and the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. The research will be provided at no cost to the Legislature, a committee staffer said.

The bills were carried over from the last legislative session and cover a wide range of policy areas, such as education, social services, the judiciary, and labor and housing. All of the bills had at least one work session last session, and two were voted out with divided reports recommending passage.

Talbot Ross said the bills selected were ones in which researchers believed data could be used to assess racial impacts and could be reasonably assigned to researchers and completed.

Racial impact statements would be drafted by UMaine in partnership with the permanent commission on race and be forwarded to the committee of jurisdiction by the end of February, so it can be used during any work sessions or deliberations prior to making recommendations. The committees set to receive these impact statements are: Education and Cultural Affairs, Health and Human Services, Judiciary; and Labor and Housing.

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The impact statements will consider the problem a bill is trying to solve; whether that problem is worse for historically disadvantaged racial populations; what factors contribute to racial inequities; what policies, institutions or actors have shaped those disparities; and what would reduce inequities associated with any proposal. Researchers are also being asked to note when data is not available to assess impacts.

Each legislative committee will be asked to report back about how the statements factored into deliberations, whether any amendments were proposed in response to the information, or whether anyone voted for or against a bill because of the information.

Researchers, meanwhile, will be asked to report back on how much time it took to research and draft each impact statement, so that information can be used to determine the cost and feasibility of expanding the pilot program to include more bills for the Legislature. Any recommendation to expand the program would be due late next year.

“I would like to have a real emphasis on time, so we can come up with some understanding of costs eventually,” Talbot Ross said. “This will help determine how much this will cost to institutionalize impact statements in the legislative process.”

Lawmakers were eager to see the pilot takeoff.

“I’m really excited to see this pilot move forward and see what comes out of it,” said Sen. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick. 

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