By Andy O’Brien
With January upon us, the Maine Legislature is now back in session and will be debating several key issues impacting communities of color. As the new politics writer for Amjambo Africa, I will be providing updates every two weeks about the status of these important policy discussions in Augusta and how you can get involved and make a difference. Here’s an overview of some key proposals we will be following this session.
Non-citizen driver’s licenses and healthcare
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross has sponsored a bill (LD 1138, “An Act to Improve Work and Family Mobility by Altering and Removing Certain Requirements for Driver’s Licenses and Nondriver Identification Cards”) that would repeal Maine’s law requiring proof that someone is legally present in the U.S. when applying for a Maine driver’s license or non-driver state ID. When LD 1138 was heard in committee last session, advocates for the bill, like Goodwill Northern New England, argued that many New Mainers, especially asylum seekers, do not typically receive a photo ID in the form of a work permit for many months. This makes travel to the grocery store, appointments, job training, or school very difficult, especially in rural areas with no public transit system.
Last year Talbot Ross’s bill to provide MaineCare coverage to 5,000 immigrant Mainers by making adult non-citizens eligible for Medicaid failed to win support from Gov. Janet Mills. However, the House speaker’s Communications Director Mary-Erin Casale has noted that this does not mean the bill can’t be brought forward again this session.
Addressing the housing crisis and poverty
As anyone who has tried to find a new home or apartment in Maine in recent years knows, the state has a severe housing shortage. Estimates are that Maine needs 84,300 new homes to meet current and future demands over the next seven years, according to a recent study by Maine Housing and the Mills administration. The study concludes that Maine needs nearly 38,500 more homes immediately, and an additional 37,900-45,800 new homes by the end of the decade.
Talbot Ross’s office told Amjambo Africa that a special committee at the Legislature is working on identifying an ongoing source of funding to construct more affordable housing, as well as to increase funding of homeownership programs. The committee is also working on strategies to recruit and train the next generation of workers to build these homes.
Legislative leaders are seeking to provide an additional allocation for the Emergency Housing Relief Fund to build a new shelter in Lewiston, provide funding for Housing First services in Bangor, and continue funding for the Asylum Seeker Transitional Housing Program in Saco through June 30, 2025.
The nonprofit organization Maine Equal Justice (MEJ) will be lobbying lawmakers to pass legislation that will help low-income people obtain housing. Currently, there is a waiting list of 15,000 Mainers for federal Section 8 low-income housing. As a result, many of these extremely low income Maine families on waiting lists are paying over a third to more than half of their monthly income on rent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“The bottom line we’re hearing at eviction court and across Maine is that rents are impossibly high,” said Kathy Kilrain del Rio, MEJ’s Advocacy and Programs Director. “Incomes have not kept up with rent for years, so very low income households are really living on the edge of losing their homes.”
MEJ is supporting LD 1710 (“An Act to Establish the Maine Rental Assistance and Guarantee Program and Amend the Laws Regarding Tenants and the Municipal General Assistance Program”), which would reduce this waiting list by providing rent relief to people with low incomes who aren’t able to secure federal Section 8 housing. Kilrain del Rio said passage of LD 1710 will also help many families currently relying on emergency assistance through the General Assistance program.
Maine Equal Justice is also supporting LD 1877 (“An Act to Reduce the Number of Children Living in Deep Poverty by Adjusting Assistance for Low-income Families”) which would use federal funds to increase the monthly benefit of Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF provides monthly income support to low-income families and connects parents to training, education, and jobs. Currently the maximum monthly TANF benefit is just $665 for a family of three – the lowest grant of any New England state. Kilrain del Rio said LD 1877 will help more families thrive by ensuring they are able to access training and education support.
Racial justice legislation
In 2021, Talbot Ross sponsored a law that required the teaching of African American studies, Native American history, and the history of genocide in schools. However, although these topics are taught in Portland schools, Talbot Ross has criticized the Maine Department of Education for failing to implement these standards in the Maine Learning Results. This year the speaker is introducing LD 2001 (“An Act to Establish the African American Studies Advisory Council and Require Funding for African American Studies”), which would create a special independent advisory council to review and oversee the teaching of African American studies in Maine public schools.
In 1977, the speaker’s father, Gerald Talbot, sponsored the law that banned the n-word from names of hills, streams, islands, and other places in Maine. However, a loophole in the law allows the use of certain other dehumanizing slurs against African Americans and Indigenous people. Talbot Ross has sponsored LD 1667, “An Act Regarding Recommendations for Changing Place Names in the State,” which would eliminate this loophole.
A recent FBI report found that 75 hate crimes were reported in 2021 against people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized people in Maine. That is higher than the number of hate crimes reported in Vermont and New Hampshire combined. In response, Talbot Ross has sponsored LR 2621, a bill to create a new Civil Rights Division in the Maine attorney general’s office to provide public education on issues concerning hate and bias.
Maine’s four Wabanaki Tribes – Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, and Mi’kmaq Nation – have long fought for the same rights as the other 570 federally recognized Tribes in 49 states, over a range of matters including taxing authority, land use, natural resources, criminal justice, and more. Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed similar legislation, often referred to as “Tribal sovereignty bills.” However, Talbot-Ross has submitted a new bill (LD 2007, “An Act to Advance Self-determination for Wabanaki Nations”) that would advance self-determination for Wabanaki nations by allowing Tribal courts to handle crimes such as drug dealing, human trafficking, and domestic violence against Tribal communities. The measure would also break down barriers for Tribes to acquire land to which they had a legal claim before the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.
Finally, the Legislature will once again consider legislation to give farm laborers, many of them migrant workers from other countries, the same rights as other workers. Farmworkers were excluded from collective bargaining rights, and wage and overtime protections, in the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act in the 1930s. They are not eligible for the state minimum wage of $14.15 and are not entitled to overtime when working more than 40 hours a week. When these laws were debated in Congress, southern Democrats used racist language to oppose the inclusion of farmworkers and domestic workers from these critical labor protections because the vast majority of those laborers in the southern states were Black.
Mills has opposed bills to allow farmworkers to unionize and qualify for minimum wage and hour protections, but has established a special stakeholder group of representatives from labor unions, nonprofits, and farmers to recommend a new state minimum wage for agricultural workers. Those recommendations will be debated this legislative session.
How to get involved
As a former Maine legislator and political reporter for many years, I have seen first-hand how important it is for residents of Maine, including New Mainers, to make their voices heard. The Maine State House is full of lobbyists who are paid to convince legislators to support the priorities of their clients. But when residents engage their local legislators and speak from their own experiences, they are often far more effective in convincing legislators than paid lobbyists.
You can reach your local legislator by phone, email, or even text about legislation that is important to you. Most legislators do not hear a lot from their constituents, so hearing from even five or six people, urging them to vote for or against a particular bill, can make a big difference in how they vote. One effective way to lobby your state senators and representatives is to gather a group of community members and ask for a meeting with your legislator.
When the Maine Legislature is in session, you can also visit your legislators and tell them your position on bills, or you can testify on bills in front of legislative committees that hold public hearings. You do not have to be a U.S. citizen to participate in the legislative process. If you are not yet fluent in English you can bring your own interpreter to hearings to help translate your testimony.
Maine Equal Justice has a guide explaining how to contact and lobby your legislators, how to testify at a public hearing, and how to write a letter to the editor to your local newspaper (such as Amjambo Africa) about proposed legislation: maineequaljustice.org/get-involved/take-action/.