By Ulya Aligulova, Amjambo’s legislative reporter

Updates from Augusta

“Maine Equal Justice and Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition are both encouraging members of the public to testify. This is a great opportunity for us to make the legislators aware of all the different reasons that result in people becoming food insecure.” 

The Second Regular Session of the 130th Maine Legislature opened on January 5, 2022 and will run until April 20, 2022. Many organizations that serve immigrant and BIPOC populations in Maine are working to support bills prioritized by these communities. Two of these organizations are Maine Equal Justice and Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. 

One priority bill supported by Maine Equal Justice (MEJ) is LD 1748, which aims to reduce child poverty. The bill is sponsored by Senator Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin). Kathy Kilrain del Rio, Advocacy & Programs Director at MEJ, said that the bill responds to data on outcomes for families who participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment (ASPIRE) programs collected by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

“A report was sent to the Committee on Health and Human Services last summer and there will be a second report coming out of DHHS to the Committee that  looks at efforts to address child and family poverty. TANF and ASPIRE have not always succeeded in helping families meet their needs or goals, but we can take steps to make them work better. LD 1748  would take steps to help ensure these important programs can truly support families in meeting their education and training goals so they can move from poverty to financial security. At the same time, these actions can help strengthen Maine’s workforce. We expect a public hearing in February.”  

Maine Equal Justice is also tracking bills pertaining to the housing crisis this session. LD 473, a carry-over bill that has to do with voucher programs for people who need rental assistance, is sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland). “A lot of people who are advocating for affordable housing recognize that funding more vouchers to enable low income people to access housing is one critical piece in the affordable housing crisis.” Other priority bills related to zoning are on review this session. These include LR 2299 and LR 2339 – the hope is that changing existing zoning laws will allow for the creation of more affordable housing across the state, and also open up paths to make the system more equitable. 

“The zoning commission met last summer and came out with a series of recommendations. This month Rep. Ryan Fecteau, Speaker of Maine House of Representatives, presented those recommendations to the Labor and Housing Committee. LR 2299, which is sponsored by Rep. Fecteau, aims to address those recommendations. All of these bills are interconnected, and we are not sure if they are going to move individually, or if they will get combined, but they will be a big topic of conversation in the Labor and Housing Committee in the next months,” said Kilrain del Rio. Other bills that address housing access, racial equity in housing, and discrimination due to housing status, include LD 892, LD 1773, LD 1704, and LD 1871. 

The Ending Hunger in Maine by 2030 Advisory Group was created in 2019, thanks to legislation sponsored by Senator Hickman (D-Kennebec). The advisory group brought together many different voices to address hunger in Maine, including people directly impacted by food insecurity. The focus was alleviating hunger as well as the root causes that lead to food insecurity. The group produced an interim report with recommendations. And this session LD 174, An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Ending Hunger by 2030 Advisory Group, will be moving through the legislative process.  

“MIRC is part of the Ending Hunger in Maine by 2030 Advisory group,” said Tobin Williamson, newly hired Policy Advocate at MIRC. “We participated in the process of formulating the plan and the priorities, and we’re really hoping to see that one pass.” 

The issue of homelessness is closely tied to the lack of affordable housing in Maine. “LD211, An Act to Support Emergency Shelter Access for Persons Experiencing Homelessness, is another bill we’ve been working to support. Homelessness is a big issue, particularly in Portland and Lewiston. And immigrant communities are often the most affected. The bill involves appropriation to the shelter operating subsidy program through the Maine State Housing Authority to support operations and capacity at the various low barrier emergency homeless shelters across the state,” said Williamson. 

Two tribal sovereignty bills were carried over from last session and are both in the Judiciary Committee. These are LD 1626, sponsored by Sen. Louis Luchini (D-Hancock), and LD 585, sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D – Portland). The bills seek to redress wrongs that date back to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementation Act of 1980, which disadvantaged the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, and their members.  

One federal bill that’s on MIRC’s radar is S315, Bridging the Gap for New Americans Act, sponsored by Senator Klobuchar, which aims to address credentialing issues of immigrants. Williamson said, “One of the big problems in Maine and many other states is that when people who get credentials as engineers or pharmacists in their countries of origin, later on immigrate to the U.S., a lot of times those credentials aren’t recognized. So they end up working in positions that pay a lot less than what they’re accustomed to. The skillset and education they have doesn’t always transfer. This bill, which belongs to the Senate’s HELP Committee (housing, education, labor, and pensions), encourages the Department of Labor to look into ways of addressing the workforce and labor issues that impact the immigrant and refugee communities.” 

Members of the public can get involved and support or oppose certain bills by participating in public hearings. Information about these can be found on the Maine legislature website, or by following social media posts from MEJ, MIRC, and Amjambo. Committees will be meeting over Zoom this legislative session, so it’s very easy to sign on and submit testimony. Another way of influencing decision making is to reach out to congressional offices directly by phone or email.