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Proposal Would Let Maine Legislators Request Racial Impact Statements For New Laws

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, at the Augusta Civic Center, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. Talbot Ross is spearheading a proposal to allow lawmakers to request racial impact statements on certain bills.

The Maine Legislature could soon join those in about half a dozen states that allow lawmakers to request racial impact statements on certain bills.

The Maine proposal is spearheaded by assistant House leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, who says analyzing a bill’s potential impact on people of color can help prevent harmful and disparate racial outcomes in new laws, while also institutionalizing those considerations in future legislation.

Talbot Ross, a Democrat, presented her bill to the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee Wednesday and acknowledged that it won’t singlehandedly tear down structural racial inequities, nor prevent all of them in the future.

“But we can make a commitment to making our systems a little fairer at every decision point,” she said.

By systems, Talbot Ross is referring to laws and rules that, intentionally or not, have exacerbated racial inequities that have plagued domestic policy in the United States since the abolishment of slavery.

Whether it’s crime laws that have led to the disproportionate jailing of Black people or public health policies that have exposed more people of color to the risk of contracting COVID-19, supporters of Talbot Ross’ bill, like Portland attorney Krystal Williams, say it’s time for state lawmakers to examine new legislation through the lens of race.

“Race neutral legislation, no matter how well intentioned, can — and does — produce disparate outcomes,” Williams said.

Talbot Ross’ bill would, in a limited way, effectively force state lawmakers to consider the racial impacts of the bills they consider.

It would allow some legislative committees to request an analysis from nonpartisan staff to review how a potential law might affect people of color.

The measure starts small. Legislative leaders would this year study what criteria or metrics might be used to analyze a bill’s racial impacts, and would then pick four legislative committees to test the use of those measurements beginning in the second session, which starts next year.

Talbot Ross said many committees already have access to racial impact data, it’s just not formally used when considering bills.

“We do know what health outcomes have produced. We do know wage gaps. We do know wealth gaps. We do know housing gaps. We do know education gaps. We have data currently not being utilized in our legislative process,” she said.

And Talbot Ross said her bill would not force state agencies to compile racial data that it doesn’t have, although it might inspire those agencies to begin collecting it.

Racial impact statements could be used in much the same way as fiscal notes on bills that costs money.

Anthony Jackson, a young Black man and activist from Brewer, said it’s time lawmakers evaluate bills with the cost of racial disparity in mind.

“The same sense of urgency, diligence and scrutiny that is put into the financial security of the state needs to be applied to the security of our people when implementing policies,” he said.

The proposal drew support from racial equity and immigrant advocacy groups during the public hearing.

It was also supported by officials from Maine’s Indian nations, including Rep. Rena Newell, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which is sometimes at odds with state laws that it views as environmentally harmful or detrimental to sustenance fishing rights.

“The historical record shows that the Maine government has a long, dark history of enacting laws without regard to the costs of such policies on the communities that I stand to represent,” Newell said.

Racial impact statements have been adopted by roughly seven states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are relatively new and their efficacy is still unclear.

Iowa was the first state to pass one, in 2015, and one study found racial impact statements had a neutral impact on disparate incarceration rates. Two years after former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a similar law, only one bill out of that state’s legislature has generated an impact statement.

But Talbot Ross cautioned against viewing her bill as one that would only benefit people of color, an assessment echoed by civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto.

“Because our communities can only be stronger when we are all stronger,” Bonauto said.

Nobody who testified during the public hearing opposed the bill, which will now be evaluated by the State and Local Government Committee.