By Rebecca Scarborough

The first part of the 131st legislative session will have ended by press time. Bills that pass both House and Senate votes go on to Gov. Janet Mills to be signed into law. The passage of new laws has a direct bearing on the lives of individuals living in Maine. Activity at the legislature is frenetic toward the end of a session as legislators, advocates, and members of the public all try to ensure passage of bills that are important to them. Each year, some bills that would benefit immigrants and members of communities of color pass into law; others do not. What follows is a snapshot of some highlights.

LD 199, “An Act to Improve the Health of Maine Residents by Removing Exclusions to the MaineCare Program,” sponsored by Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Dist. 118), did not reach the governor’s desk. The defeat was a blow to advocacy groups, who worked hard on a collaborative campaign they called “All Means All.” The campaign was led by Presente! Maine, New Mainers Public Health Initiative, Maine Equal Justice, Maine People’s Alliance, Maine Center for Economic Policy, and Consumers for Affordable Health Care. Eighty people provided testimony in favor of passage – 43 in person, and 37 through written testimony. And after a work session in the Health and Human Services Committee, the majority of committee members voted that the bill “ought to pass,” which meant that the bill would be voted on in both the full House and Senate. Subsequently, however, the bill passed the House, but not the Senate. Passage would have removed citizenship from the eligibility requirements of MaineCare, which is Maine’s form of Medicare. Anyone who met other MaineCare criteria then would be able to get necessary medical care, regardless of their immigration status. The All Means All campaign issued this statement: “LD 199 came farther than any bill like it before. The arc of justice is long, but in Maine it is bending toward health equity. Those without access to life-saving health care can’t afford the luxury of time, so we’ll continue to bring their urgent stories to legislators and we won’t stop until health care for all truly means all.”

At the end of June, Gov. Janet Mills announced that she would sign into law LD 1964, “An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Commission to Develop a Paid and Family Medical Leave Benefits Program.” The bill was sponsored by Sen.Matthea Doughtry (D-Dist. 23). The law will create a state-run Paid and Family Medical Leave program paid into by both employers and employees. Eligible workers will then be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave. On May 5, groups supporting this project went to Augusta for a lobby day. The Labor and Housing Committee voted along party lines that the bill “ought to pass.” The new law will help families.

Here are some of the approximately 300 testimonies submitted in support of LD 1964:

“I am holding my newborn baby girl while typing this. At four weeks postpartum, I will be returning to work in the service industry. This is before my stitches will have been removed and before the recommended 12 weeks [of] down time by both my doctors and pediatricians. My situation is not unique, but I find myself in the position of having to choose between financial and physical health, and both are interconnected.”                                                                                 — Katie Dionne 

“My family came to the U.S. when I was 16 years old, and my mom began working as soon as she got her work permit. She worked for her employer for seven years, but last year, she got injured. The company told her after two days that she must return to work or lose her job – even after providing a note from her doctor. … She had been injured many times at work before, but had never complained because she loved her job and didn’t want to endanger her livelihood.”  — Amina Hassan

“I gave birth to my stillborn son at 7:30 a.m. and was waiting on customers by 2:30 that afternoon. No one should ever have to go back to work the same day a beloved family member dies. No one should have to choose between their health or caring for a loved one and not having enough money to pay their bills.” — Patty Kidder

“I have long COVID. … For now, my priority is to rest and recover, and without a robust Paid and Family Medical Leave program in the state, I am left making difficult choices. Every day, I weigh my health against my income and have to choose which I’m going to prioritize.”

—  Maggie

“I moved to this country a few years ago from a small country in Africa where family is everything and children are considered treasures. In my native country, employers are mandated to provide family leave of at least 14 fully paid weeks to allow parents the time to bond with their newborn and assist mothers with complications that may arise after birth. In addition to that, mothers are allowed at least one hour per day that they can use at the beginning or end of their shift to accommodate and encourage breastfeeding. Because a child is considered not only to belong to their parents but to the larger family and community, people usually take turns to help the family with the newborn, especially in the first few months after birth. I was very surprised to learn that things were very different in this country and in this particular state of Maine: employers are not required to provide parental leave to their employees.” — Nadine Twagirayezu

The legislature will reconvene in January 2024. By testifying and by making their views known to their elected representatives, the public can have an impact on what bills pass into law in Maine. Amjambo urges everyone to participate in the democratic process.

The Amjambo Africa team is saddened to report that Rebecca Scarborough, who was our legislative reporter, died of natural causes on July 2, 2023. This was her final column. She was an invaluable member of our team and we will miss her very much.