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Lawmakers asked to consider racial impact of new bills

More than 6 months after Black Lives Matter protests rocked the country, the Maine Legislature is being asked to take a step to help reduce racial inequality.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In a crowded Zoom meeting screen, the comments from Rep. Rena Newell stood out. The Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Tribe’s representative to the Maine Legislature told members of the State and Local Government Committee that past actions by the state have hurt her people.

“From flooding our land to build dams, to killing our fisheries to build roads or cutting our lumber to put in state coffers, the historical record shows Maine government has a long history of enacting laws without regard to the cost of such policy in the communities I stand to represent,” Newell said.

She was there to support a bill from Repo. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) that would require the Legislature to begin using racial impact statements to assess the potential effects of bills they pass.

The impact statement proposal grew out of last summer’s series of meetings of the Permanent Commission, a group of lawmakers and others formed to assess the impact of several hundred bills awaiting Legislative action. The Commission was, in part, a response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

“Racial injustice,” Talbot Ross told a morning press conference, “does not harm only black and indigenous and people of color. It harms all of us. To build a strong and fair economy, and a vibrant and thriving community, all Mainers, all Mainers must be empowered to participate and reach their full potential.”

Talbot Ross said the Racial Impact Statements are being used in a few other states. The goal is to have Legislative staff use research data to determine how proposed policies will affect Maine’s racial and ethnic minorities, whether it be related to such issues as health care, education, housing, or criminal justice.

“I think that (criminal justice) will probably be one of the places we will start but it's very important we do not keep our gaze just on criminal justice. We need to make sure that, given all the systems where we have a historic unequal impact, that we can use an analysis.”

The bill got strong support from fellow lawmakers in the committee’s public hearing, and also from the two top leaders of the Legislature, Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson.

“The harsh reality is Maine’s indigenous people and people of color have often been left out of the conversation or only an afterthought, and that’s just not right,” Jackson said.

Talbot Ross’s bill would not bring immediate change. She said if it passes, the first year would be spent gathering more data and planning for how those racial impact statements should be created, then try it out on several bills the following year.