To advance racial equity, Maine’s Permanent Commission needs permanent resources

Note: James Myall is a member of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations

All Mainers — regardless of race, ethnicity, or tribal membership — deserve an equal chance to thrive in the state we all call home. But Maine, like other states and our nation as a whole, has a legacy of discriminatory policies and practice that continue to put up barriers to equality today.

In 2019, recognizing the state’s need to prioritize racial justice, the Maine Legislature created the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. The 12-member Commission was charged with studying the status of historically disadvantaged populations, conducting public hearings and outreach to learn more about the challenges and needs of Maine’s racial and ethnic minorities and tribes, and make recommendations to the governor and Legislature to advance racial justice.

Over the past year, the Commission has conducted important work. With the help of legislators, it reviewed outstanding legislation from the 129th Legislature and recommended a package of bills to help improve racial equity in Maine.1 The Commission has hired a consultant to help develop a workplan and codify an organizational structure. And we have worked alongside Dr. Nirav Shah and staff at the Centers for Disease Control to address racial disparities in Maine’s COVID-19 response.

The continue and build upon this requires time and resources. While private donations, volunteered time from commissioners, and assistance from lawmakers have helped the Commission conduct its work to date, the Commission needs stable, predictable, support to sustain its work into the future.

If the Commission is to truly be a permanent and ongoing project, it needs ongoing funding from the legislature. LD 1034, sponsored by Rep. Michael Sylvester, would provide annual funding to the Commission, and expand its ability to meet the Legislature’s goal of collecting data, conducting analysis, and making recommendations to build a more just and equitable Maine.

Rep. Sylvester has introduced an amendment to his bill. The legislation as amended would make the following changes to the Commission:

  • Staff: The addition of permanent staff will allow the commissioners to focus on the long-term work of the Commission. The current situation requires commissioners to spend too much time in the weeds of research, correspondence, and scheduling.
  • Funding: Provide $2 million in annual funding to the Commission, including $400,000 for staff and $1.6 million to cover the costs community outreach and listening sessions, in-depth data management and analysis, and the research and policy work necessary to make recommendations to all three branches of government.
  • Ability to submit legislation: Allowing the Commission to submit legislation at any point during the session better reflects our role as advisory to state government than the current language. This provision would allow the Commission to respond promptly when it identifies problems to be addressed.

This year, several bills have been introduced this session asking the Commission to examine racial disparities in Maine’s existing agricultural, health, and justice systems.2

I serve on the Commission’s judicial subcommittee. Our work plan for the upcoming year includes conversations with the Acting Chief Justice, the chief justices of the tribal courts, public defenders, and other stakeholders about the status of Maine’s judicial system. We’re planning to examine whether the judiciary itself is reflective of Maine’s racial and ethnic makeup; whether the criminal justice system in Maine is adequately serving people of color; and how the state can support the sovereignty of tribal courts.

If Maine is serious about offering “the way life should be” to everyone, we must be willing to fund this work on an ongoing basis.

The work of examining and dismantling racial injustice is hard. There is no magic wand to end the legacy of centuries of policies and practice that put opportunity, prosperity, and safety out of reach for people of color. It takes time and sustained effort. That’s why the work of bodies like the Commission is critically important. The Commission can tackle these problems over a longer period of time than any two-year legislative session or even a four-year gubernatorial term. But to do so, the Commission must be funded adequately and empowered to fully make a difference.


Notes:

[1] “Recommendations to the Legislature,” Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, Sept 2020. https://www.maine.gov/labor/pcrit/reports/2020_LegReport.pdf

[2] LD 870, “Resolve, Directing the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations To Study the Impact of Policies Regarding Agriculture, Access to Land, Access to Grants and Access to Financing on African-American and Indigenous Farmers in the State;” LD 1113, “Resolve, To Direct the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations To Study and Propose Solutions to Disparities in Access to Prenatal Care in the State;” and LD 1226, “Resolve, Directing the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations To Examine Restorative Justice.”