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Statewide commission looks for legislation to help fight racial bias

Commission members say they won’t be able to address every problem of racial inequity in Maine right away, but say the process should be a good first step.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last month, Maine’s Legislature is looking for ways to address racial bias. A special Commission is reviewing existing bills right now, looking for those it believes can help reduce racial bias and make life better for people of color. 

Commission members say they won’t be able to address every problem of racial inequity in Maine right away, but say the process should be a good first step.

The Permanent Commission on Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations is going through more than 400 bills the Legislature still is trying to deal with, and look for ones that would make target a range of racial concerns. Portland Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, the leader of that Commission, says issues like health care and bail reform need to be looked at closely because both those areas of concern have long-standing inequities for people of color. The current pandemic has revealed African Americans in Maine fall victim to coronavirus at a much greater rate than other residents. 

Maine’s Native American tribes face their own issues. Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s Tribal Ambassador to the Legislature, says they are hoping for changes to strengthen tribal sovereignty in multiple ways, through revisions to the 40-year old Indian Land Claim Act. She cited the example of child custody and related laws, which she says the tribes want more authority to enforce themselves.

Dana says for all of Maine, there are serious concerns that need to be faced.

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“It kind of been our charge on this commission to tell people you can’t go around saying we’re this great state of Maine, when we have people suffering in our borders. And we’re telling you we are, and this is how we can work together to make everyone better.”

 Talbot Ross says she thinks this is a first step that will lead to more.

“This for me, and I daresay for a number of people of color in Maine, is so overdue-long overdue- but I don’t think we will go back to business as usual. I do believe we are at the beginning of a new way of addressing race and racism,” she told NEWS CENTER Maine.

Talbot Ross says the Commission had already whittled the list of bills down to 100 before the start of today’s session, and the process will continue. It will present the conclusions and the final list of suggested bills to the Legislature in about two weeks. After that, assuming there is a special session, those things bills will be brought up for votes. Issues that don’t get through this time, both members said, are likely to come up in the new Legislature in the winter.