The Second Regular Session of the 130th Maine Legislature opened on January 5 and will conclude on April 20. Organizations that represent the interests of communities of color and immigrants in Maine have been working hard to galvanize support and provide testimonies for bills that have the potential to improve daily life in these communities.
Maine’s critical affordable housing shortage is a priority issue for communities of color as well as all low-income Mainers and their allies. Already a problem in pre-pandemic times, the affordable housing situation has only worsened, with American-born people moving here from other states, along with resettled Afghans and asylum seekers.
“Affordable housing is the number one, most urgent priority issue that Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition is working on right now that’s impacting the communities that we serve. Housing is a really charged issue right now,” said Tobin Williamson, Advocacy Manager at MIRC, a nonprofit coalition of 85 member organizations working to improve the legal, social, and economic conditions experienced by Maine’s immigrants.
Rep. Victoria Morales introduced a bill that concerns the rental voucher program, LD 473, An Act To Create the Maine Rental Assistance and Guarantee Program, which has passed to be enacted. Some public hearings on housing bills have been contentious. Discussions lasted late into the night about two bills introduced by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. These were LD 1673, An Act To Create a Comprehensive Permit Process for the Construction of Affordable Housing, and a companion bill, LD 2003 (previously LR 2299), An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Commission To Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions. Both are still in process. Two other housing bills mentioned in Amjambo’s previous Legislative Updates – LD 892 and LD 175 – failed. A number of other housing-related bills are also still in process.
Racial equity remains a priority issue. Sen. Matthea Daughtry of District 24, Cumberland, has introduced LD 598, An Act To Prohibit Discrimination in Employment and School Based on Hair Texture or Hairstyle, informally known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair).
“This is an issue we see affect the communities that we serve, so it’s one of our big pushes this session,” Daughtry said. “We know that school officials and employers sometimes discriminate against people based on their natural hair, for example afro hair, dreadlocks, or braids. We’re working to ensure that the Maine State Human Rights Commission has that as part of their anti-discrimination plan.” Bills similar to the CROWN Act have been introduced around the country. The public hearing for the bill has taken place and the bill is making its way through the legislative process.
“An important federal issue that MIRC is watching is Title 42,” said Williamson of MIRC. Title 42 is an immigration policy that was put into place by the administration of former President Donald Trump that allows for quick expulsion of asylum seekers by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, if they come from a country where communicable disease is present. According to the American Immigration Council, more than 1.2 million people have been expelled since the start of the pandemic. The current administration has put into place a policy that says that unaccompanied minors will not be subject to the rapid expulsion policy, but it remains in effect for families and single adults.
MIRC and advocacy organizations nationwide have long expressed vehement opposition to Title 42, which they believe has been used – and continues to be used – as an easy tool for excluding those seeking asylum from the U.S. The Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2022, HR 2813, mentioned in Amjambo’s legislative report last month, is making its way through the legislative process. The act seeks to reduce the wait time for work authorization for asylum seekers from 365 days to 30 days. The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives by First District Rep. Chellie Pingree and was co-sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins. If passed, the legislation would mean that asylum seekers could earn a salary, and therefore could start to support themselves.
Tribal Sovereignty bills have been some of the highest profile bills this session, however Gov. Janet Mills’ administration has expressed opposition to several bills that have been introduced. “It seems like they haven’t been able to come to an agreement with the governor’s office on tribal sovereignty at large,” said Meagan Sway, Policy Director at the ACLU of Maine.
“However, there seems to be a compromise that the tribes have come to with the governor – it looks like the governor did agree to some sort of an allowance for tribal gaming, which is part of LD 585,” Sway said. This is a step forward in the long battle of Maine tribes to enter the gaming industry. The proposal would permit some types of mobile and in-person sports betting facilities to operate on tribal reservations.
Tribal sovereignty bills were supported by the Wabanaki Alliance and many other advocacy groups. In March, the Wabanaki Alliance collected over 1,800 testimonies in support of these bills. The Wabanaki Alliance has also had a large turnout for their rally day at the Maine State House in March. Bills include LD 1626, An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act, introduced by Talbot Ross; LD 585, An Act To Restore to the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe the Authority To Exercise Jurisdiction under the Federal Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010; and LD 906, An Act To Provide Passamaquoddy Tribal Members Access to Clean Drinking Water.
A priority bill for the ACLU is LD 1479, An Act To Make Certain Traffic Infractions Secondary Offenses, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales, District 33, South Portland. “It would prevent the police from being able to pull people over for certain minor traffic offenses. Unfortunately, the majority of the committee voted against, but we feel it’s very important to be able to provide protection to people from pretextual traffic stops. The bill hasn’t hit the floor yet though,” said Sway of the ACLU.
Other notable bills that have received considerable public support are LD 1610, An Act To Promote Equity in Policy Making by Enhancing the State’s Ability To Collect, Analyze and Apply Data, sponsored by Talbot Ross, and LD 174, An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Ending Hunger by 2030 Advisory Group, sponsored by Rep. Bill Pluecker. These bills have yet to leave the committee.
Members of the public can get involved in the democratic process in several ways. Every bill that is introduced must have a public hearing. This is an opportunity for citizens to voice their support or opposition to a bill. Testimony can be submitted through the Maine Legislature website (www.mainelegislature.org/testimony/), via email, or over the phone. The schedule for hearings and more information about how to participate can be found on the Maine Legislature website or by following the websites and social media platforms of advocacy organizations such as Maine Equal Justice.