Dozens of advocates for social and racial justice testified Wednesday in favor of a bill that would require any new state legislation to be reviewed for how it would affect racial and ethnic minorities.

Sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, assistant majority leader in the House of Representatives, the bill is meant to combat what many see as systematic racism in state government. The measure went before the State and Local Government Committee for a public hearing Wednesday.

“On a personal level my most damaging experiences have been from white uninformed people in power,” Anthony Jackson, a Brewer resident who described himself as a Black man, activist and community organizer, said in the hearing.

“Far too often Black, Indigenous and people of color are forgotten, overlooked and disregarded,” Jackson said. “Even if unintended, policies that do not consider the impact on these communities, have, can and will continue to harm them.”

Others pointed out that Maine’s immigrant populations are largely people of color and they make up one the fastest growing segments of the population in the nation’s whitest state.

“Maine’s multicultural population is complex and diverse,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. She said 2020 U.S. Census projections show there are nearly 90,000 multicultural Mainers, a near doubling of that population in just nine years.

“More than half are foreign born and the rest are 40,000 Indigenous and naturalized multicultural people of all races. This population is one of the largest and it is the fastest growing population in Maine. The future of Maine resembles the future of the U.S.; it is multicultural, and the upcoming generation will shape our workforce and consumers,” she said.

The bill calls for establishing a process for reviewing legislation for potential impacts on racial and ethnic minorities. Legislative committees would have the authority to request and receive data needed to assess potential impacts from state departments and agencies.

Talbot Ross called the measure “the first step in recognizing that many of our laws have produced disproportionate outcomes for generations of Black and Indigenous populations in Maine.” 

“To disrupt this historical pattern, legislators must be intentional in factoring in race throughout the development, review and adoption of public policy,” she said. Talbot Ross is one of only two Black lawmakers in the 186-member Legislature and the first Black person in state history to hold a legislative leadership position.

The legislation follows protests in Maine and across the U.S. in 2020 that saw thousands take to the streets after police killings of Black people, including George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, among others.

It also comes as the state pursues equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, after early infection patterns showed that Black Mainers accounted for a disproportionately high number of cases.

Progressive groups who back the legislation point to data that shows that deep systematic discrimination is still widespread in the state’s housing, economic and criminal justice systems, and that Blacks make up a disproportionate percentage of Maine’s homeless population.

“I keep hearing that we don’t have a problem with systemic racism in Maine,” said Michael Mosley, a volunteer with Maine Equal Justice Partners. “But the numbers don’t bear that out. You don’t have the highest COVID disparity in the nation, or 26 percent of homeless people being from the Black population by coincidence.”

Rep. Rena Newell, the non-voting representative of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the House of Representatives, said that if an impact statement had been required of the Maine Indian Settlement Claims Act of 1980, it would have shown the law would harm Indigenous people.

“It would have stated that the law would create barriers for the Wabanaki Nations to access the programs we need to simply live our life as other Maine populations,” Newell said.

“The structure of this institution warrants the approval of this proposed legislation,” she said. “No further policy should be crafted without fully realizing the true impact it has on historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic populations.”

The bill puts Maine among about a dozen states that either have a similar law on the books or are considering one. Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey and Oregon had impact statement laws in place as of March 2019. Seven others were considering similar legislation.

“I see this bill as an opportunity for Maine to incorporate the best possible evidence into our decision making,” said House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. “This is a significant step toward advancing racial justice in Maine. In the pursuit of equality for all, the Maine Legislature would be taking a huge step forward by passing this bill.”

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, joined Talbot Ross and Fecteau in introducing the bill during an online news conference on Wednesday morning.

“We must ensure the laws we pass deliver for and do right by Maine people, especially Indigenous Mainers and people of color,” Jackson said. “We don’t pass spending bills without first determining the fiscal impact. We shouldn’t pass legislation without assessing the impact policies have on historically marginalized Maine people.”

Spokespeople for the House and Senate minority leaders said Wednesday that top Republicans were still reviewing the bill.

There was no testimony in opposition to the measure.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:40 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021 to correct the name of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

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