By Ulya Aligulova
The Second Regular Session of the 130th Maine Legislature, which opened on January 5, concluded April 20. Throughout the session, many organizations serving the interests of communities of color worked to advocate for certain priority bills. Many of these bills focused on housing, racial equity, and tribal sovereignty.
After a long battle, three bills aimed at improving the stock of affordable housing passed to be enacted. LD 1673, An Act To Create a Comprehensive Permit Process for the Construction of Affordable Housing, was sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross. The second, LD 473, An Act To Create the Maine Rental Assistance and Guarantee Program, was sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales. And the third, LD 2003, An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Commission To Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions, was sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. If Gov. Janet Mills signs these bills, they will become law. In addition, LD 1961, An Act To Help Alleviate Maine’s Housing Shortage and Change the Membership of the Maine State Housing Authority, introduced by Senator Hickman, has been passed to be enacted.
Unfortunately, several other housing bills that were prioritized by communities of color, have died.
An important bill on racial equity – LD 598, An Act To Prohibit Discrimination in Employment and School Based on Hair Texture or Hairstyle – also known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) received bipartisan support and has now been signed into law. Sen. Matthea Daughtry sponsored the bill. Similar legislation was introduced in many states around the country this year.
Two high profile bills that have received a great deal of public support during this session 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. Both bills passed the Senate and House, but funding levels remain uncertain.
“These past weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about which bills get what amount of money. Rep. Talbot Ross has been a champion for equity and social justice issues for the communities that we serve. We’re thankful for all the work she’s done. We’re optimistic that LD1610 and LD174 will receive appropriate funding. It will hopefully be one of our success stories when we look back on this session,” said Tobin Williamson, Advocacy Manager of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), a non profit organization that works to improve the legal, social, and economic conditions experienced by Maine’s immigrants.
Tribal sovereignty bills have received an enormous amount of support from the public this session, which were strongly supported by the Wabanaki Alliance. The Alliance collected over 1,800 testimonies in support of the three big sovereignty bills – LD 1626, An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act, and 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, both introduced by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, and LD 906, An Act To Provide Passamaquoddy Tribal Members Access to Clean Drinking Water, sponsored by Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Rena Newell. All three bills passed to be enacted.
“MIRC was an advocate of these tribal sovereignty bills as part of the Wabanaki Alliance support team,” said Williamson. “But we know that the governor and her administration haven’t exactly been big supporters of this legislation, so even if it passes the state legislature, there’s no guarantee it will be signed by the governor. The Wabanaki Alliance has done a fantastic job of organizing support and advocacy efforts. It’s really commendable, and we stand in admiration of them.”
In his testimony, Kirk Francis, Chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said, “Penobscot sovereignty pre-exists the United States Constitution. Prior to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, we had the same rights, privileges, powers, and immunity as any other federally recognized tribal nation in the country. The restrictions on our current powers and authorities have caused our communities to be stagnant.”
Title 42, an exclusionary federal bill enacted by the administration of former President Donald Trump in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowed for the expulsion of immigrants by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection if they’re from a country where communicable disease is present; shortly, this will come to an end. Advocates say that while they are pleased that President Joe Biden’s administration is more welcoming toward immigrants, the U.S. is behind and disadvantaged in implementing reforms that will allow immigrants to be smoothly processed and integrated.
“We’re cautious because the U.S. immigration system isn’t equipped to handle the expected increase in the number of people crossing the border. We’re calling for increased attention for systems that support new immigrants like social services and housing options,” said Williamson at MIRC.
The federal Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2022, introduced by First District Rep. Chellie Pingree, is another federal law that could have a huge impact on the state. If passed, this would reduce the length of time asylum seekers must wait before they are allowed to file for work permits. In Maine, where employers are desperate for employees, and thousands of young adults who want to work must wait many months before they can apply for work permits, passage of this legislation would be a game changer.