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Maine lawmaker wants consideration of racial impact of bills

February 3, 2021 GMT

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A proposal to require some future legislation to include a racial impact statement is the first step in recognizing that “many of our laws have produced disproportionate outcomes” for racial minorities, the bill’s sponsor said Wednesday.

Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, is sponsoring the bill that creates a path for lawmakers to join counterparts in seven other states that already consider the racial impacts of legislation.

The goal is to provide “impartial, objective and nonpartisan information to inform” the legislative process, said Talbot Ross, who’s the state’s first Black lawmaker to serve in legislative leadership.

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The racial impact statement would be similar to fiscal impact statements already required of bills and would provide an analysis of the impact of the proposed legislation on different racial groups to highlight potential adverse consequences, supporters said.

“Each time we come to the decision-making table we have an opportunity. We can exacerbate existing disparities or we can try to eliminate them. We can create new injustice or we can prevent it. But without a quantitative analysis of the proposals before us, we cannot always see clearly which path we’re headed down,” she said.

The bill, L.D. 2, has the support of House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson, both Democrats. Some Republicans are on board, as well, Talbot Ross said.

“It’s not enough to pass legislation that sounds good on paper or adopt policy proposals with good intentions. We must ensure the laws we pass deliver for and do right by Maine people, especially indigenous Mainers and people of color,” Jackson said.

The bill, which went before the Committee on State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday, was one of the key recommendations in the first report by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

Talbot Ross served as chairperson of the commission, which concluded discussions around race “have never been a central part of legislation” even though data demonstrates racial disparities exist in Maine, the whitest state in the nation.

For example, there are large gaps in rates of home ownership, rates of incarceration and pay between Mainers of different races. African Americans in Maine also suffered from higher infection rates than white people during the pandemic with the rate of disparity reaching the greatest in the nation at one point.

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“These disparate infection rates are not an accident. They reflect the social conditions and disadvantages created by centuries of racism,” said Michael Kebede, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

The bill would create a pilot project overseen by the Legislative Council, which is made of leaders from both parties. The council will select committees to participate, the bills which are subject to review, and the standards for review.

The racial impact statements would be useful not just for criminal justice legislation but for proposals that impact health and the economy, among others, officials said.

The seven states that already have a similar requirement are Iowa, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, Oregon and New Jersey, said Jeff Frank, spokesperson for the Maine House Democratic Office.

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This article has been corrected to show that seven states have already approved similar proposals. An earlier version incorrectly stated about a half-dozen were considering similar proposals.