Lawmakers push for tax reforms to make wealthy pay their fair share, address unmet needs / by Evan Popp

Photo: Getty Images

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on March 24, 2023

In a bid to fund education programs and ensure that the state has revenue to meet myriad unmet needs, Democratic lawmakers are pushing for two bills that would make the wealthiest Mainers pay what they see as their fair share in taxes.

Those two bills were heard during a public hearing Thursday before the legislature’s Taxation Committee. 

One of the measures, LD 843, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono), would establish an additional income tax bracket in Maine with a tax rate of 11.15%. That rate would apply to income in excess of $125,000 for single filers, income in excess of $150,000 for heads of household, and income in excess of $250,000 for married couples filing jointly. 

Maine’s current top tax bracket is 7.15%, and single filers pay that rate on income in excess of $58,050, heads of household pay that on money in excess of $87,100 and joint filers pay that rate on income over $116,100. That is the result of action taken by former Gov. Paul LePage, who pushed to lower the top income tax rate from 8.5% in a move that has cost Maine hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and has resulted in low and middle income residents being hit harder by property taxes while the wealthy primarily benefit from the lower income tax rate. 

The other bill lawmakers heard Thursday was LD 667, sponsored by Rep. Ben Collings (D-Portland). That measure would establish a surcharge of 3% on income in excess of $1 million and a 6% surcharge on income in excess of $10 million. The bill would require that 75% of the revenue generated from the measure go to funding K-12 education and 25% of the funds be spent on rural economic development. 

The measures are being introduced at a time of stark income inequality across the country, with the richest 1% making 84 times as much as the bottom 20%. Further, rising corporate profits have contributed disproportionately to inflation in yet another example of the wealthy doing well during the COVID-19 economic recovery while working class people struggle. 

Raising money to pay for unmet needs

Speaking in favor of his bill to generate money for education and rural economies, Collings noted that every year crucial programs and initiatives aren’t able to be funded in the budget due to a lack of revenue. LD 667, he said, would provide money to ensure that programs that help address the needs of Mainers can be paid for, setting the state up to succeed going forward. 

“Education and rural economics are vital for our future and vital for our economy,” he said. 

Collings also noted that a majority of Mainers voted in 2016 to create a 3% tax on income over $200,000 to pay for education programs — a policy that was subsequently repealed by the legislature. He argued that the referendum shows Maine people support tax fairness policies.

In presenting her bill, Osher noted that income tax is the fairest form of taxation. In other forms of taxation, such as sales tax or property tax, low-income people end up getting hit hardest in terms of the percentage of their wealth that they pay. But progressive income tax reflects the differences in people’s finances, with wealthier people paying more and lower-income people paying less.

But Maine’s current income tax code doesn’t truly reflect that policy goal, Osher said, pointing out that middle-income people are treated the same as wealthy people. 

“When it comes to fairness, Maine’s current income tax structure misses the mark,” Osher said. 

Osher said her bill would address this issue while also generating revenue to pay for items such as education programs, initiatives to help adults with disabilities, and behavioral health care and other programs that have long gone underfunded.  

Maura Pillsbury, an analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP), testified in favor of both Osher and Collings’ bills. Pillsbury said the issue comes down to fairness and prioritizing the needs of those who are truly struggling. 

“Raising top income tax rates will allow us to fund important needs and priorities,” she said. “Under our current tax code, millionaires pay the same income tax rates as middle-class families. We urge you to make Maine’s tax code fairer by increasing taxes on top earners.” 

Mills among opponents of bills

The Mills administration is opposed to both tax fairness bills. Michael Allen of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services submitted testimony on behalf of the governor, who has pledged not to raise taxes. Allen said the bills are unnecessary given the state’s short-term budget surplus, which advocates have argued is not actually a surplus given the longstanding deficit the state faces in meeting Mainers’ everyday needs.  

The administration also said the bills would make Maine among the states with the highest tax burden in the country and argued that the measures could result in higher-income earners departing Maine for lower-tax states. However, that argument is not borne out by research, which shows that lower taxes for millionaires in more conservative states and higher taxes in more liberal places haven’t spurred the rich to move to red states in large numbers.

Others also submitted testimony in opposition to the bills, with Nick Murray of the Maine Policy Institute arguing that, “Raising income taxes further will not help the state or its citizens. Both LD 667 and LD 843 would move Maine in the wrong direction, driving a larger wedge between the people and prosperity.” 

However, Jeff McCabe of the Maine Service Employees Association noted that the state is facing a crisis in terms of being able to provide key services for its citizens and that the wealthy can afford to pay more to help rectify the situation.  

“We pay taxes for critical services that benefit all of us,” he said. “Our public schools and colleges, roads and bridges, public safety, parks, clean water and the safety net protecting our children and seniors are just a few of the services we all count on. The revenues we raise through taxes ideally would provide the conditions for Maine communities to be places where we can all live, work, raise our families and, someday, retire with dignity in our own homes.”

Along with the two progressive taxation bills, lawmakers on Thursday also heard testimony on a Republican bill to phase out the income tax over five years, an idea that research shows would enrich the wealthy while hurting the poor, as municipalities would likely be forced to raise property taxes to make up for lost revenue. Furthermore, lawmakers brought up the point that the proposal would devastate the state budget, as nearly half of general fund revenue comes from state income taxes. As a result, initiatives such as the state funding 55% of education, municipal revenue sharing, and the MaineCare program would be much more difficult to pay for, MECEP said in its testimony. 

Republicans on Thursday also pushed for a bill to use excess state revenue for income tax “relief” that advocates said would serve to squirrel away money rather than using such funds to address various problems in the state. 

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at

Lawmakers learn how denying sovereignty has restricted tribes’ economic growth / by Dan Neumann

Supporters attend a rally in support of Wabanaki tribal sovereignty in 2022. | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on March 9, 2023

A researcher from Harvard Kennedy School presented data to the Maine State Legislature showing that the state’s restrictions on the Wabanaki Nations’ self-determination has hobbled the tribes’ economic development. 

“[The Wabanki tribes] are far underperforming the average and, in fact, are at the bottom of the barrel economically,” Professor Joseph Kalt, head of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, said from the floor of the Maine House on Thursday. “The fact that they’re not only all doing relatively poorly but very close to the bottom is telling you something important.”

As Beacon previously reported, Kalt and a research team released a study in December that found that while economic growth in Indian Country has boomed since the start of genuine tribal self-government in the late 1980s, Wabanaki Nations have been left out of this progress.

Average per capita incomes among the 9,546 citizens of the Wabanaki Nations in Maine — Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot — has only increased by 9% since 1980, compared to 61% for members of the tribal reservations outside of Maine. The average Maine income grew 25% during the same period.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Joseph Kalt presents to the Maine State Legislature. | Beacon

Kalt also said that employment numbers among all four Wabanaki Nations is only about one-quarter that of similarly sized tribes. And rates of child poverty are far higher among the Wabanki tribes. The average rate is 40.2% at Passamaquoddy’s Indian Township and 76.9% for children in Mi’kmaq Nation, while 15.1% for the rest of the state. 

Kalt indicated that these disparities are largely the result of the restrictions of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 (MICSA), which has excluded the tribes from rights and protections created through federal law since its passage over 40 years ago.

“What do each one of these tribes share?” Kalt asked lawmakers. “What they share is MICSA, which allows the state of Maine either actually or potentially to block the application of federal policies adopted since 1980, which is the era of self-government.”

Kalt’s research focused on the economic impacts of legislation that ushered in what tribal scholars call the “Self-Determination Era,” which began with the the 1975 passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act and continued with the 1989 signing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which freed tribal governments to decide to operate gaming enterprises within tribal nations.

While gaming played a significant role in the economic growth in tribal communities across the country over the last three decades, Kalt stressed that self-determination facilitated tribal expansion into diversified industries. That has been key to their economic development.

“It’s not just casinos,” he said. “It’s self governance that has resulted in diversified economies in Indian Country.” 

Kalt further explained that if the 1980 Settlement Act were amended and the Wabanaki tribes rose to the national average, Maine could expect to see an increase of $320 million to the state’s GDP.

A multi-year legislative effort to overhaul the Settlement Act died in the legislature’s budget-making committee last year. The reforms, pushed for by the tribes and their allies, would have altered tribal-state relations on matters from taxation to gambling to wildlife management. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills opposed the legislation, as did Attorney General Aaron Frey, and instead passed a compromise that will allow the tribes exclusive control of online sports betting markets.

At the federal level, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden sponsored a bill that would have allowed the Wabanaki access to all future federal legislation passed on behalf of tribes. That legislation died in December when it was not included in a congressional budget deal due to opposition from Sen. Angus King, an independent, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins. 

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), the sponsor of the previous tribal sovereignty bill, has submitted new legislation this session, although it remains to be seen exactly what that measure will contain. 

As the Wabanaki continue their campaign for self-determination, Kalt said that sovereignty has produced multiple benefits for tribes beyond the economic realm.  

“What’s happening in these communities under self-government is they’re starting to see recovery of language, recovery of culture. What’s happening?” he asked lawmakers. “Well, everybody knows when you read about what causes suicide, it is a lack of a sense of agency. Your life seems out of your control. What self-determination and self-governance has done for tribes is start to turn things around. What self-determination restores is a sense of agency, a sense of control, and it produces more and more success stories.”

In a statement after the presentation, Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and president of the Wabanaki Alliance, said Kalt offered persuasive evidence that policies encouraging tribal self-determination have been “an amazing success story” among tribal communities across the country, including many that are located in rural areas.

“Maine is the outlier, and, as Dr. Kalt showed lawmakers today, it’s due to the obstacles MICSA places on the Wabanaki Nations,” Dana said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. A better story than the one we’ve seen over the past 40 years is possible.”

Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at

Bills to ensure wealthy and corporations pay fair share of taxes will be a focus this session / by Evan Popp

Mainers rally in Augusta in 2019 for a fair tax code | Beacon

Orignally published in Maine Beacon, January 13, 2022

Advocates and progressive lawmakers are planning to push a series of tax fairness measures this legislative session in an effort to rebalance Maine’s tax code and ensure that the wealthy and corporations are paying their fair share. 

Legislators are set to consider a measure to conform Maine law with a stipulation in the federal Inflation Reduction Act that set a minimum corporate tax rate to ensure big businesses pay taxes, a bill to expand and better target the state’s child tax credit to help lower-income families, and legislation to fix a policy from last session that froze property taxes for older Mainers but that advocates believe was poorly constructed. 

Other tax fairness measures the legislature will likely take up include a bill to force corporations to be more transparent about how much they pay in taxes and a measure to clamp down on big businesses that hide profits overseas.  

Passing tax reform measures in recent years has been complicated by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ repeated pledge not to raise taxes, even on the wealthy, who reaped major benefits from tax cuts implemented by former Gov. Paul LePage. Mills vetoed the only progressive revenue bill that came to her desk during the 2021 session. That bill would have bolstered underfunded affordable housing programs by adjusting Maine’s real estate transfer tax to implement higher rates on the wealthy. 

Still, some bills that simply made the tax code more balanced were successful last year, including a measure to stop large chain stores from exploiting a “dark store” tax scheme by arguing that their retail properties should be valued the same as abandoned shopping centers that have lost economic value. Mills allowed that bill to become law without her signature. 

This year, advocates appear to be pursuing a similar strategy: pushing for a more just tax code rather than raising tax rates, especially with the state once again registering a budget surplus

“From our perspective it’s more about fairness and what [the wealthy and corporations] actually owe,” said Maura Pillsbury, state and local tax analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP). “Rather than seeing it as an increase in taxes, we would just see it as tax fairness.” 

Along with the governor, advocates must also deal with a legislative Taxation Committee featuring a litany of new faces. Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Hancock), who has carved out a progressive record on some issues, will chair the committee on the Senate side. And returning to the committee will be Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland), another progressive. Chairing the committee on the House side is Rep. Joe Perry (D-Bangor), who has supported some tax reforms. Perry told Beacon in a recent interview that he believes corporations have made large amounts of profits recently and that he wants to help people on the lower end of the income spectrum. 

“It’s the lowest income people who pay the biggest percentage of their income and who struggle the most,” he said. “So, I want to see fairness.” 

One challenge to passing such measures, however, is that the Taxation Committee only has a 7-6 Democratic majority, rather than the 8-5 split present on many other committees. Still, Sarah Austin, director of policy and research at MECEP, said she feels optimistic about the chances of pushing through strong tax reforms this year. 

“We’re excited. We know that corporate taxation is something that the public really wants to see more fairness in,” she said. “We have a lot of public support on our side.” 

Specific policies include child tax credit, corporate tax measures 

One major policy being introduced this session is an expansion of Maine’s child tax credit. The child tax credit was expanded at the federal level in 2021 in a move that some experts estimated cut child poverty in half during that year. However, Congress allowed the program to expire at the beginning of 2022. 

House Majority Leader Mo Terry (D-Gorham) is introducing a bill to make Maine’s existing child tax credit refundable, which would allow those lowest on the economic ladder to benefit from it. The bill would also increase how much families receive under the existing credit, although the amount of that expansion has not yet been finalized. 

Terry argued that an expanded child tax credit would be beneficial for families across the state.   

“We saw the benefit of what a child tax credit looks like on a regular basis from the Biden program,” she said, referencing the federal legislation from 2021. “So if they’re not continuing theirs, I thought we could continue ours or expand on ours and make it so we can help our working folks with kids as much as possible.” 

Perry said he also saw the benefit of the federal child tax credit program through increased business at his general store when the initiative was in effect. He expressed general support for the concept behind Terry’s bill. 

A series of measures related to corporate taxes are also expected to be introduced this session. One such bill, Pillsbury said, will deal with a policy included in the federal Inflation Reduction Act that set a 15% minimum corporate tax rate for businesses making over a billion dollars in profit. That move came after reports that dozens of massive corporations paid zero in federal taxes on their 2020 profits. 

Pillsbury said MECEP is pushing for Maine to conform its state tax code with that policy from the federal government so that profitable corporations here have to pay a minimum tax rate as well. Austin said she’s hopeful that effort will be successful, as the Mills administration has shown willingness to conform state taxes to the federal code in the past.

MECEP is also pursuing corporate tax transparency. Under that legislation, corporations would be required to report how much they pay in income taxes, which big businesses have often been resistant to do.

“We really believe the public deserves to know if corporations are paying their fair share and there should be greater transparency in what corporations are paying in taxes and what they’re receiving from the government in tax incentives,” Pillsbury said. 

A third corporate tax measure is a continuation of a bill previous legislatures have worked on. Last session, lawmakers passed a measure requiring the state to study how Maine could implement a policy to crack down on corporations hiding profits offshore to avoid paying taxes. The Maine Revenue Service’s report on the feasibility of that policy is due in February, Pillsbury said. 

Austin said advocates are hoping for buy-in from the Mills administration to address the issue. She also cited a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy that estimated tax dodging by corporations via offshore havens costs the U.S. $60 billion and Maine $52 million in revenue each year.   

Pillsbury said she expects corporations to fight back against any tax haven measure along with the conformity to the federal corporate tax rate bill and the transparency legislation. 

“They’ve already pushed back pretty hard,” she said. “So I would expect with anything around transparency or taxation of corporations that they’ll be pretty active and pretty public.” 

One additional measure advocates are working on this year is a fix to a bill passed last session that froze property taxes for Mainers 65 and older who applied for the program. Terry, who is introducing the reform, said the original bill was rushed through the process and was poorly targeted, simply providing property tax relief to older Mainer who signed up, regardless of economic status. It also put a burden on municipalities to administer the program, she said. 

The fix Terry is proposing would better target the law by providing property tax relief for older Mainers who are lower-income, rather than anyone 65 and over. While Terry said she still feels uneasy about the age requirement in the program, better targeting it for older Mainers is a step in the right direction. 

“It’s at least a solution that’s better than what we have in place now, which is essentially mayhem,” she said.

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at

Harvard study: Restricting sovereignty has stifled Wabanaki economic development / by Dan Neumann

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on December 8, 2022

new report from Harvard University finds that the state of Maine’s unique control over the Wabanaki Nations has significantly stifled their economic development. 

The report indicates that this is largely the result of the restrictions of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which limits the tribes’ ability to exercise self-governance over their own affairs.

The tribes are unique among the 574 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. due to the Settlement Act, which has excluded the tribes from rights and protections created through federal law since its passage 40 years ago.

“Today, all four of the tribes in Maine — Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot — are stark economic underperformers relative to the other tribes in the Lower 48 states,” reads the December 2022 research report authored by Joseph Kalt, Amy Besaw Medford and Jonathan Taylor for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Wabanaki economic growth not keeping up with other tribes

Graph in the report, “Economic and Social Impacts of Restrictions on the Applicability of Federal Indian Policies to the Wabanaki Nations in Maine” by the the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Since 1989, the researchers found, the income for the average resident of a reservation outside of Maine has increased by more than 61%. But for members of the Wabanaki Nations, average per capita income has only increased by 9% during the same period, while the rest of Maine saw a 25% increase.

The researchers further found that the tribes are significantly underdeveloped economically compared to the rest of Maine. 

Houlton band of Maliseet and Mi’kmaq Nation citizens have the lowest average annual per capita income of the Maine demographic studied at $11,320 and $11,431, respectively. Citizens of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s two reservations, Indian Township and Pleasant Point, have annual incomes of $14,435 and $13,741. And Penobscot Nation citizens have the highest per capita income of the Wabanaki Nations at $18,809. Yet Maine’s per capita income is nearly double that at $34,593. 

And while Maine’s five-year average child poverty rate is 15.1%, the rate is 40.2% at Passamaquoddy’s Indian Township and 76.9% for children in Mi’kmaq Nation.

A multi-year legislative effort to overhaul the 1980 Settlement Act died in the legislature’s budget-making committee earlier this year. The reforms, pushed for by the tribes and their allies, would have altered tribal-state relations on matters from taxation to gambling to wildlife management. Gov. Janet Mills opposed the legislation, as did Attorney General Aaron Frey, instead signing into a law a compromise that her office brokered that will allow the tribes exclusive control of online sports betting markets.

At the federal level, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden has sponsored legislation that would allow the Wabanaki access to all future federal legislation passed on behalf of tribes. Golden’s legislation has been opposed by members of the forest products industry.

Despite passing the U.S. House last summer, Golden’s bill appears to have stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, has said he opposes the bill. Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she has not taken a position on the measure.

The economic advantages of self-determination

The Harvard University researchers advocate for lifting the 1980 Settlement Act, arguing the economic growth associated with allowing the tribes to fully self-govern would spill over to surrounding communities and the state as a whole.

“The subjugation of the Wabanaki Nation’s self-governing capacities is blocking economic development to the detriment of both tribal and nontribal citizens, alike,” the report reads. “For the tribal citizens of Maine held down by [Settlement Act’s] restrictions, loosening or removing those restrictions offers them little in the way of downside risks and but much in the way of upside payoffs.”

The researchers further warn, “Against these upside prospects is a status quo in which all sides leave economic opportunities on the table and ongoing cycles of intergovernmental conflict, litigation, recrimination, and mistrust continue.”

The research focuses on the economic impacts of legislation that ushered in what tribal scholars call the “Self-Determination Era,” which began with the the 1975 passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act and continued with the 1989 signing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which freed tribal governments to decide to operate gaming enterprises within tribal nations.

While gaming played a significant role in the economic growth in tribal communities over the last three decades, the researchers stress that the broader benefits of self-determination, not just gaming rights, was a key factor in the economic development.

“By the end of the 1980s, economic development in Indian Country began to take root as tribes built enterprises in, for example, ski tourism, light Defense Department manufacturing, forestry and wildlife management, livestock and crop agriculture and gaming,” the researchers explained, noting that by 1999, 47% of Indigenous people residing on reservations lived on reservations whose tribe did not own and operate a casino.

“Nonetheless,” the report reads, “those reservations experienced inflation-adjusted per capita income growth nearly three-fold greater than the U.S. did as a whole, compared to the slightly greater than three times performance of tribes with casinos.”

The report concludes, “For the tribal citizens of Maine, loosening or removing [the Settlement Act’s] restrictions offers few downside risks and many upside payoffs. There’s nowhere to go but up.”

Photo: Mainers hold signs supporting Wabanaki sovereignty at the State House earlier this year during a legislative campaign to amend the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. | Beacon

Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at

‘People are closer together than we’re told’: Progressive newcomer on campaigning in rural Maine / by Dan Neumann

House District 81 Democratic candidate Daniel Sipe. | From Sipe’s Facebook page

Origninally published in the Beacon on November 24, 2022

Political newcomer Daniel Sipe came within 392 votes of unseating a conservative stalwart in a rural district in western Maine. He did it by talking to residents about their most immediate concerns: jobs, healthcare, housing, energy costs and the environment. 

“I really think that people are closer together on how they want the country to move forward than we are told by the media,” said Sipe, a resident of Norway and a first-time political candidate. 

Sipe, a Democrat, lost to incumbent Republican Rep. Sawin Millett by nine percentage points in House District 81, which includes Norway, Waterford, Greenwood and Stoneham. Millett, who has been in the legislature off and on since 1969 and served in the administrations of four governors, is an influential member of the legislature’s powerful budget-making committee.

Sipe was able to keep the race relatively close, considering his opponent’s name recognition and the perception that his district leans conservative. However, after knocking on over a thousand doors and having countless conversations, he’s begun to question that characterization. 

Sipe found that while voters may consume different media and identify with different candidates or parties, if he kept the conversation on the issues that impact them most, there is a surprising degree of commonality. 

“The first thing is meeting people where they’re at and listening to the problems they face,” Sipe said. “When you get them talking, you see that people want good jobs and they want their neighbors to have good jobs. They don’t want to be saddled with medical debt. And they don’t want their neighbors to be saddled with medical debt either.”

Democratic candidate Daniel Sipe talks with a resident at a food co-op in Norway last summer. | From Sipe’s Facebook page.

People want real solutions, not tweaks

Sipe entered Maine politics as a canvasser with the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), working on referendum campaigns to increase the minimum wage, expand Medicaid eligibility and increase funding for public education through taxes on the wealthy. He moved to Norway in 2020 when he co-founded a non-profit consulting company where he works closely with local artists and craftspeople in the community. 

He said the issue that voters in his district were most concerned about this election season is the lack of good-paying jobs in the community. The biggest employers in the district are the school system, Stephens Memorial Hospital, and the New Balance shoe factory in Norway. There are no chain stores in the entire district.

“People feel forgotten about out here in western Maine,” Sipe said. “We have massive infrastructure problems. Our roads are quite bad. A lot of folks don’t have access to good internet. No one is going to move their business here if we don’t have good roads and internet.”

People are also worried about the high cost of goods and energy, he said. The price for a gallon of heating oil has hit a record high. Electricity bills for many customers of Central Maine Power and Versant will increase by as much as 49% at the beginning of next year. This follows rate hikes made earlier this year with more likely to come next summer. 

“It’s scary to think about the winter that’s coming,” Sipe said. “I think that it’s one of those things as a state legislator, unfortunately, there’s not much that we can do about high prices, but we can work to provide heating assistance to low-income families.”

On a complex issue like healthcare, Sipe found that rural voters are not afraid of confronting difficult and persistence problems at their root.

“People talk about getting rid of insurance companies and providing healthcare for everyone. That is not as radical an idea as it seems,” he said.

While Maine’s larger towns and cities often get the headlines, Sipe said the housing crisis hits all corners of the state. Across Maine, rents are soaring. Home prices have climbed dramatically in many areas. Average long-term mortgage interest rates have risen above 7% for the first time in decades. As a result, people are taking on more debt to buy a house. 

Residents want the state to take urgent action, Sipe said.

“People feel that housing is a huge problem here. It’s a huge problem everywhere,” he said. “We need to invest at the state level in housing.”

And, as Europe had its most severe drought in 500 years last summer, residents in western Maine were also concerned about the lack of rain. It was the third consecutive year that large parts of the state experienced drought. 

“People have started experiencing drought that they’d never experienced before. People’s wells are running dry,” Sipe said. 

He added, “They’re worried about large corporations taking advantage of our landscape. They’re worried about CMP, for instance, not just the rising electricity costs, but the fact that they are not really going to benefit from a corridor that is just owned by an out-of-country corporation,” referring to CMP and Hydro-Quebec’s 145-mile transmission corridor that was rejected by voters in 2021.

Hitting the right target

There has been some debate in Maine politics about what Democrats need to do to win in rural districts. Rifts in the party emerged after former Democratic legislator Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro co-authored a book, “Dirt Road Revival,” claiming that the party has lost touch with rural voters. 

Despite losing his race on Nov. 8, Sipe believes that Democrats can steadily win voters in rural districts if they consistently prove themselves to be loyal to working-class Mainers. That has not always been the case, he said, and that failing has given Republicans an opening to present themselves as the party of “family values and workers.”

“I think Democrats need to stop kowtowing to large corporations and go to work for the people that live here. We need to focus on the things that make people’s lives a little bit easier,” he said.

Sipe said progressive policy arguments will win, even in rural areas, if the correct sources of problems are consistently articulated to voters. Otherwise, right-wing narratives and scapegoating will win the day. 

“Oftentimes people focus on who they see as taking advantage of the system. But I think when you have a real conversation about who’s taking advantage of the system, you can change their lens,” he said. “It’s not your neighbor who might be getting assistance to pay for food or who has a disability and can’t work who is the source of the problem. It’s the corporation that is not paying any taxes and is raising the cost of goods and making it really hard to survive.” 

Sipe continued, “We need to be constantly pivoting away from blaming the folks who have it hard and putting the focus on the folks that are taking advantage of us. I think most people instinctively know what the actual problem is. It’s just not always what they go to first.”

Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at

To protect fragile economy, report argues Maine must do more for workers / by Evan Popp

A recent report found that although Maine bounced back quickly from the pandemic-induced downturn, that recovery has masked “continued underlying weaknesses in the economy.” 

Challenges identified in the Maine Center for Economic Policy’s annual “State of Working Maine” report include that many jobs continue to lack basic labor protections — even as workers increasingly assert their power and demand improved standards — and that wage growth has been stymied by high inflation. 

The study, authored by MECEP economist James Myall, found that Maine has enjoyed a near-full recovery from the economic shock created by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with employment almost back to pre-pandemic levels and the state GDP higher than before the crisis. Myall credited the recovery in part to an aggressive fiscal response by the federal government, which provided states and people with funds during the pandemic through various programs.

In all, Maine’s economic bounce back from the crisis was much faster than the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. After that crisis, the state’s employment and GDP levels lagged behind pre-2008 levels until 2016, which Myall attributed in part to austerity policies, which took place primarily under the LePage administration.  

Still, the report found that the recovery from the pandemic is fragile and has hidden several warning signs for Maine’s economy. 

Inflation blunting impact of wage growth 

One significant problem is inflation, which is higher in the U.S. than at any point in the last 40 years. While a strong labor market has improved wages for Maine workers, the report found that the “rapidly rising cost of living has dulled the benefit” of that higher pay. For example, although wages for middle income workers in Maine have increased by 18% in the last three years, inflation has risen by nearly 13% over that same period. That creates an actual wage growth of just under 5% for workers during that time, which Myall writes is “much more modest than the substantial increase indicated in many news headlines.” 

Wages not rising enough to significantly outpace inflation is of particular concern in the child care and direct care industries, the report states. People in both occupations have been chronically underpaid for years, leading to a shortage of such workers. The market has failed to rectify the problem, Myall said, calling for intervention from the state to raise those workers’ wages and provide subsidies for those who need to access services. And while the state has acted to increase child care and direct care employees’ pay, Myall argued it might not be enough to attract workers to the industry, especially given the continued issue of inflation. 

Those in the industry are also calling for better working conditions to attract more potential employees. 

“Our early childhood education system is sinking. There are so many families in Maine with no options for child care,” Terri Crocker, the owner of Creative Play Childcare in Bath, says in the report.  

Given the economic landscape, the Working Maine study makes several recommendations to improve workers wages against inflation. The first is to preserve and expand the state’s minimum wage, which is currently tied to the cost of living. However, MECEP has found that by going beyond that and raising the minimum wage to $16 an hour by 2025, Maine would increase pay for over 350,000 workers and make strides in addressing economic inequality. 

Myall also recommends paying direct care workers adequately and requiring employers to be transparent on job applications about the wages that potential workers can expect to receive. 

Worker protections must be strengthened 

Another challenge to the seemingly strong economic recovery is that labor protections remain scant for too many workers, according to the report. Myall notes that the pandemic caused many workers to reevaluate their relationship to their job, resulting in a significant number leaving for new positions. The amount of Mainers quitting and being hired for new positions recently hit its highest point in two decades, the report found. Higher wages are the prime motivation for workers switching jobs, along with affordable health care, more predictable hours and paid time off. 

Given this amount of labor “churn,” Myall argued there is more to be done to improve working conditions for Mainers. Some moderate improvements have been made over the years, including when Maine’s paid time off law took effect in 2022. That law caused the number of Mainers who get paid time off to increase from 33% in the five years preceding the pandemic to 54% this year. 

Still, that means a substantial number of Mainers continue to face the potential of financial struggles if they have to take time off for illness, caring for a loved one, or other reasons, Myall pointed out. He argued that the paid time off law should be broadened to encompass more workers and should also include provisions to protect against retaliation, which the statute currently lacks. A bill to bar retaliation by employers against workers who use paid time off was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills in 2022. 

An additional recommendation for improving labor standards is to create a fair workweek standard, which would require business to create predictable schedules for workers. Unpredictable schedules, Myall states, have been shown to negatively impact workers’ bottom line as well as their physical and mental health.

A recent rally in support of Chipotle workers in Augusta | Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989 via Facebook

Another policy that would improve workers’ lives is paid family and medical leave, which allows employees to take time off work for a longer period of time. That differentiates it from paid time off, which covers short-term leave. Maine will have a chance to create a paid family and medical leave system in 2023, either through legislative action or via the ballot box, as advocates (including Maine People’s Alliance, of which Beacon is a project) are gathering signatures for a potential referendum. 

In discussing how labor standards can be improved, Myall noted the increased leverage workers have right now, as businesses and other employers seek to fill positions. 

Much of that power has manifested in increased unionization activity in Maine and nationwide, as workers seek to form collective bargaining units in various industries, including at stores operated by corporate giants such as Chipotle and Starbucks. Worker power has reached heights not seen in decades, MECEP found. 

“Now that the country has seen how valuable we are, it’s time for us to demand that we are cared for as well as workers in any other industry,” Brandi McNease, who helped lead a recent unionization campaign at a Chipotle in Augusta, said in the report. 

Still, the study found that “as much as worker power has increased, it is still eclipsed by the clout of many corporations and businesses,” with employers often fighting back hard against unionization efforts. 

To address such challenges, the report recommends that policymakers guarantee the right to unionize in Maine without interference by bosses. Myall also calls for an improvement to the bargaining power of public sector unions in Maine. Arbitration decisions on wages and benefits for workers in such unions are not currently binding, which allows employers to often ignore workers’ demands. Public sector union workers in Maine are also not allowed to strike, which undermines their leverage, Myall argues. 

Finally, the report recommends that agricultural workers be allowed to form unions. Such workers have long been denied basic labor protections, including the right to form a collective bargaining unit or even be considered employees under state wage and hour laws. A bill passed by the legislature that would have allowed farmworkers to unionize was vetoed by Mills in January.

Structural barriers keep too many out of workforce 

Another issue Maine faces is that some people can’t participate fully — or at all — in the labor market. Some barriers to employment that Mainers face include health issues, caregiving responsibilities, fewer labor opportunities in rural areas and continued structural racism, according to the study. There are jobs available for such people, Myall found, and including them in the labor market would improve the economy without lowering wages for existing workers. 

One indication of Maine’s problems with full workforce participation is that there are fewer prime-age people — 25 to 54-year-olds — participating in the labor market than prior to the pandemic. That dip has not manifested fully in Maine’s overall employment numbers since older workers are staying employed longer, the study found. 

Myall states in the report that a reduced number of prime age people in the workforce often indicates that “people are either discouraged about their ability to find a job with a sustainable wage or in some way prevented from working (for example, a health condition, lack of child care, or transportation issue).” 

Furthermore, asylum-seekers are currently barred from requesting a work permit for 180 days, preventing another segment of people from joining the labor force. 

“I want to have a house and take care of myself, my friends, and my family. It’s difficult to support myself without working,” Gervin Kah, an asylum-seeker in Maine, said in the report. 

To address these issues in the workforce, the report argues that the state has to help prime age people return to the labor force while also supporting older Mainers who want to keep working and allowing those who want to retire to do so with security. 

There are a number of policy recommendations that could help with this goal, including continuing public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, encouraging employers to make accommodations for those with long COVID, increasing access to health care systems (including mental health services), creating a comprehensive subsidy for child care, maintaining funding for free community college, and enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workforce. 

“Maine lawmakers have the opportunity to build on the momentum begun by workers themselves and reshape the economy in a way that works for all of us — an economy that fairly compensates workers and ensures all work is respected with fundamental rights,” Myall writes.

Photo: A sign at a rally earlier this year to support the Maine Medical Center nurses’ union | Beacon 

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at

Beacon, October, October 19, 2022,

Opinion: A long history of collective struggle in Maine’s restaurant industry / by Andy O’Brien

Photo: Corey Templeton | Creative Commons via Flickr

Originally published in the Beacon:

High staff turnover rates in restaurants also make it difficult to maintain worker power to establish organizing committees and maintain it through the long drawn out process of getting workers to sign union cards, winning the secret ballot election and negotiating a contract, as employers often drag their feet until a year passes and they can run a decertification campaign. Employers will also exploit divisions between dining room and kitchen staff.

It has been deeply inspiring to witness the efforts of workers at Starbucks in Biddeford and Chipotle in Augusta to organize their workplaces in an industry that is notorious for low wages and a difficult work environment. But as these union drives have shown, corporations will go to extreme lengths to stop employees from organizing, including firing organizers and closing the business in blatant violation of our weak labor laws.

As of 2020, the food service industry had one of the lowest unionization rates of any sector in the US — just 1.2%, compared to 10.8% of all wage and salary workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s why it’s so impressive that food service workers in Maine and across the country are winning union elections against all odds. But this isn’t the first time restaurant workers in Maine have risen up and organized and it certainly won’t be the last.

A History of Struggle

As early as the 1890s, Maine restaurant and hotel workers began organizing and forming worker organizations known as “labor and benefit” orders, according to labor historian Charlie Scontras. In 1919, members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ International Alliance and Bartenders’ International League of America (HERE) established locals in Augusta and Portland. Then in 1928, the Portland local brought HERE’s international president, Edward Flore, and an organizer to the city where they were reportedly “met with good success, adding several new houses to the fair list and strengthening the Local.”

Two years later, in 1930, the Portland Central Labor Union, a precursor to the Southern Maine Labor Council, funded an organizer to help establish a HERE local, but it failed to survive “due to the lack of interest in this class of workers.”

However, union activity in Maine dramatically increased with the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which created the fundamental right of workers to organize, and the Maine State Federation of Labor (MSFL), a precursor to the Maine AFL-CIO, successfully convinced HERE to send another organizer. The Teamsters in Portland even passed a resolution at that time refusing to patronize non-union restaurants in the city.

The main driving force for organizing efforts in the 1930s was that wages were incredibly low and Maine still didn’t have a minimum wage law. Jesse W. Taylor, Maine’s Commissioner for Labor and Industry, observed in 1939 that many workers in restaurants and other female-dominated industries in Maine earned just $5 a week ($106 adjusted for inflation) for 54 to 64 hours of work. At the very least, Taylor argued that the state should establish a 25-cent per hour minimum wage law for women and minors.

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act didn’t cover restaurant workers, and Maine was one of the last states in New England to pass a minimum wage law in 1959, but it still didn’t cover restaurant servers.

Just like today, wage theft and blacklisting were very common in the restaurant industry. Taylor pointed to one case where a restaurant owner refused to pay a young woman who worked 72 hours in one week because, the employer argued, she was leaving the job.

“We had proof she had worked over time. The books at the restaurant can be checked,” said Taylor. “She went in court and testified. It cost the employer $36 in court and she was blacklisted and could not get a job anywhere in the city. Violations have been going on elsewhere. They would like to go to court, but do not dare to.”

Speaking to the MSFL Convention in 1954, Maine’s Labor Commissioner lamented the state’s failure to pass minimum wage legislation and said that workers didn’t come out and testify in support of it in great numbers because they were likely afraid of losing their jobs.

HERE continued to support union organizing drives throughout the 1950s, but the anti-union legal system unfortunately chilled the momentum. In 1954, workers established HERE Local 390 at Theodore’s Lobster House in Portland (later DiMillo’s Lobster House) which led to a court injunction banning picketing of the establishment that was later upheld by the Maine Supreme Court. This blatant suppression of free speech ignited the labor movement to demand a state level Labor Relations Act to protect restaurant, hotel and retail workers, who were not covered under federal labor laws.

At the 1954 MSFL convention, workers claimed that the Portland Chamber of Commerce had even sent letters “asking all restaurants apparently to keep labor organizations away from their doors.” The convention voted to drop Portland from its list of recommended convention sites in 1956 in solidarity with restaurant workers.

One HERE worker organizer in Portland noted that restaurant workers earned as low as 22 cents an hour and that the Eastland Hotel even imposed “fines” on workers that “sometimes completely consumes the weekly pay.” In a letter to a state legislator in 1965, the organizer wrote:

“The State of Maine is called ‘Vacationland.’ A vacationland needs tourists and these tourists need accommodations. We, the workers of the Hotel and Restaurant Industry provide the services needed for these accommodations. Yet, we are the most sorely neglected citizens of this state. We work a 54-hour week for as little as $.25, $.35, and $.50 cents an hour.

Are we not as good citizens of our country as they are? Must we receive less pay because we work in Maine? Because of a few who have the financial power … must we remain 65 years behind the rest of the country?”

In the late 1970s, there was another resurgence of organizing in the restaurant industry. As one supporter of the unionization effort wrote in Maine Labor News:

“Would you like to work for exactly one half the legal minimum wage? Would you like overtime being at 46 rather than 40 hours per week? Would you like to work on a piecework system largely at the mercy of supervisors who play favorites?

Would you like to be sent home without pay because there isn’t ‘enough work’ on your shift without compensation? Would you like to have no pension plan, no medical benefits, no paid holidays or sick pay? If you enjoy the terms of such employment you could work for a job as a waitress or waiter anywhere in the state.

Would you like to sink hundreds of dollars into an education at a trade school in culinary arts only to find that you are not making enough money on the Job after graduation to pay for your education?

Would you like to wash dishes, clean motel rooms, scour pots, or bus tables for $2.30 an hour? If you have answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, you, too, could qualify for work in the hotel or restaurant business.”

The most successful union drive of the 1970s was on August 3, 1977 when servers, bartenders and kitchen staff at the Roundhouse Motor Inn in Auburn voted to form a union with HERE. In the 1980s, it was sole unionized restaurant in the state and union workers often patronized it, including holding meetings there during the International Paper Strike of ’87-88.

However, workers trying to organize the Portland Red Coach Grille and Convention Center in 1976 faced much more difficult odds after the business fired a lead organizer, setting off a year of unfair labor practice complaints, appeals, staff turnover and rampant union busting that culminated in a defeat for the union. With the anti-union climate of the 1980s and 90s, it wasn’t until the 21st century that restaurant workers briefly began organizing again with the establishment of the Southern Maine Workers Center in the mid 2000s.

But given the increasing passion of restaurant workers for collective action in the 2020s, perhaps we can look forward to patronizing more unionized restaurants and hotels in Maine in the near future!

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the Maine AFL-CIO’s blog. Most of the information in this article was gathered from the book “Maine Labor in the Age of Deindustrialization and Global Markets: 1955 – 2005” by Charles Scontras. 

Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of 160 local unions representing 40,000 workers. However, his opinions are his own and don’t represent the views of his employer. He is also a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.

Beacon, August 11, 2022,

Maine News: Chipotle shuts down Augusta restaurant amid unionization campaign / by Evan Popp

Photo: Workers at the Augusta Chipotle | Courtesy Maine AFL-CIO

Originally published in the Beacon on July 19, 2022

Workers at a Maine-based Chipotle argue the corporate fast-food chain is engaging in union-busting after the company announced Tuesday it is closing the Augusta restaurant where employees filed to form a collective bargaining unit. 

On Tuesday, Lisa Zeppetelli of the Chipotle northeast region corporate office informed workers that the Augusta restaurant at 1 Stephen Drive would be permanently closing, effective that day. In the message, Zeppetelli claimed that while the company had spent considerable time and resources on the store, “we don’t have management necessary to reopen.” The store originally closed temporarily in June after employees expressed concerns about staffing levels.  

Workers rallied Tuesday afternoon in protest of the decision to permanently close the restaurant, urging Chipotle to reverse the decision. In a news release announcing that protest, employees at the restaurant said the timing of the closure is revealing. Last month, a majority of workers at the Augusta restaurant filed to form a union — a first among Chipotle workers nationwide — called Chipotle United. That came after employees protested working conditions at the restaurant by walking off the job earlier in June, arguing that persistent understaffing and a lack of training was creating an unsafe environment. 

“This is union busting 101 and there is nothing that motivates us to fight harder than this underhanded attempt to shut down the labor movement within their stores,” Chipotle United member Brandi McNease said of the company’s decision to close the Augusta restaurant. “They’re scared because they know how powerful we are, and if we catch fire like the unionization effort at Starbucks they won’t be able to stop us.” 

McNease added that the company waited until the morning of a hearing to determine the next steps for the union election to announce that the store would be shut down. 

“Since we announced our intent to unionize, they’ve tried to bully, harass and intimidate our crew to prevent them from exercising their right to have a collective voice on the job,” she said. “But we remain united, our solidarity is strong and we won’t bend. We are sticking together and our customers have our backs. We are fighting this decision and we are building a movement to transform the fast food industry and ensure the workers who create all the wealth for these corporations are respected and no longer have to struggle to support their families.”

McNease pointed out that Chipotle gave its CEO a massive bonus in 2020, arguing that the claim the company couldn’t bring in enough workers to keep the Augusta restaurant open doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. She said Chipotle has the money to “attract workers and pay them living wages” if the company wanted to.  

In her email to workers on Tuesday, Zeppetelli said workers will be paid for any scheduled shifts through July 24 and will receive four weeks severance based on hours they worked over the past two weeks. Chipotle benefits will continue through July 30 and workers can keep getting benefits through the COBRA program for a period of time, she said. The company also pledged to assist workers in finding another job. 

In a statement to Beacon, Laurie Schalow, chief corporate affairs officer at Chipotle, reiterated the arguments made by Zeppetelli in her email, writing that the company went to “extraordinary lengths to try to staff the restaurant, including deploying two recruiting experts dedicated to this one restaurant.” However, she said those efforts were unsuccessful and that the staffing issues meant reopening the restaurant wouldn’t be profitable. Schalow did not address a question about whether Chipotle was attempting to bust the workers’ union. 

The announcement that the Augusta store will be shut down comes as the effort to unionize Chipotle workers has spread. The organizing committee for the Augusta restaurant union said it has received communications from employees at other Chipotles in Maine and around the country asking for advice on forming a collective bargaining unit. And earlier this month, workers at a Chipotle in Michigan also filed to form a union. 

Such efforts are part of a labor movement that has shown renewed strength in Maine and across the country. Organizers have recently won union elections at an Amazon warehouse and myriad Starbucks locations as workers seek to force companies to treat employees better, pay them a higher wage and put in place additional protections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at

Opinion: To end gun violence we also need to end poverty / by Stephen Carnahan

Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images

When I’m not feeling angry, I’m sad. When I’m not feeling sad, I’m angry. 

The sadness is because of the loss of young, innocent lives. It’s so hard to watch the news and see the faces of the children in Uvalde, Texas or parade goers in Chicago. It makes me so sad to know that there are people from California to New Hampshire who have been shot because…well who knows why? It makes me sad to know that people have been shot in large numbers because they were Black or gay or Jewish or just enjoying a music festival. Maybe even just driving down the road. I see our society closing its eyes to all this because its just too much to take. 

And I’m angry. I’m angry at a nation that has decided to let this happen. We alone of the developed nations of the world kill ourselves like this. We have decided we are okay with it.

We let people become desperate. We allow many of our people to live in poverty. Poverty creates desperation and desperate people can become violent. We allow our people to survive with inadequate housing, or none at all. We allow people to build mansions, and let other people sleep in doorways. We let one in every eight people try to get by without enough food. Often we restrict people’s freedom and let inequality reign, despite what we say in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Poverty, lack of housing, prejudice, hunger—all these things create desperation. Desperation creates crime and violence. 

We have then decided, as a nation, to make sure those desperate people have access to plenty of powerful weapons. A troubled young man can walk into a store on the day after he turns 18. He can buy two powerful rifles and plenty of ammunition. He can use them to take 21 lives, 19 of them beautiful little children. So, yes, I’m angry! And so very sad.

I am sad because it doesn’t have to be this way. I have been working with the Maine People’s Alliance for about two years and have learned that there are many solutions to the problems of the people, but that we have to twist arms and march and protest to get our leaders to take the actions we need. 

Not all of them, of course. There are many good legislators who are doing their best to improve the lives of Mainers. I do not want this letter to be seen as implying that the problem is poor people. It’s poverty itself that troubles us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to be always dealing with sadness and anger. We can deal with poverty. We can make sure people in Maine have enough food and adequate health care. And we certainly can, we certainly must, change our laws to make it harder for desperate people to get their hands on powerful weapons. 

Stephen Carnahan is a retired pastor who has been living in Maine for 24 years and has worked in congregations of the United Church of Christ for 35 years. Prior to that, Stephen worked as a high school teacher on Long Island, NY. He currently lives in Auburn on Taylor Pond and has two grown children, one of whom lives in Maine and the other travels all over. Stephen volunteers with the Maine People’s Alliance and can also be frequently found at Sea Dogs games in Portland.

Maine Beacon, July 5, 2022,

NRA convenes in Texas as gun stocks soar on Wall Street / C.J. Atkins

Then-President Donald Trump speaks at a National Rifle Association event in 2019. Trump will be the featured speaker at the NRA’s convention in Houston this weekend. | Michael Conroy / AP

The funerals haven’t even been held yet in Texas for the 19 schoolchildren and two teachers murdered at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday. Families remain grief-stricken, pleading for information about why law enforcement reportedly dithered as their loved ones were being gunned down.

But that’s not stopping former President Donald Trump, other Republican lawmakers, and firearms marketers from descending on Houston this weekend for a three-day celebration of guns at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention.

Meanwhile on Wall Street, the country’s biggest gun and ammunition manufacturers are also having a party—because their stock prices are swelling. Smith & Wesson added 8.4% in the days immediately after the massacre. Sturm, Ruger, & Co. tacked on 5.7%. For bullet maker Olin, the gain was 3.8%. The biggest winner was Ammo Inc., an Arizona-based manufacturer of ammunition and owner of, billed as the largest online marketplace for guns. Its share price jumped more than 12%.

By now it’s all a familiar story. After a mass shooting, the NRA rushes to deflect blame from itself for promoting the culture of violence, all the while encouraging more gun purchases in the name of safety. In Washington and in state capitals around the country, the gun lobby’s political arm—the Republican Party—does its utmost to sabotage any possible firearms regulation. And the gun companies reward them both for the effort spent to protect their profits.

The 21 victims—including 19 children and two teachers—of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. | Family handouts

The whole affair is premised on transforming fear into votes for the GOP and into dollars for shareholders.

Gun party met with protests

Though some politicians and singers pulled out of the NRA’s Houston confab, Trump will be the headline speaker. He’ll be joined by other darlings of the far right, such as Sen. Ted Cruz and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott—who said a few years ago that he was “embarrassed” his state wasn’t number one in the nation for gun purchases—won’t be showing up. Instead, he’ll address the meeting via video.

Comments from Rocky Marshall, a former NRA board member, previewed what’s expected to be the message from the organization. Marshall said that the Uvalde massacre “does put the meeting in a bad light,” but said that the free and easy availability of military-grade assault rifles is not the problem. Instead, he shifted the blame to mental illness and inadequate school security.

The nation certainly faces a crisis of mental health care accessibility, but the NRA’s attempt to deflect from its role in blocking common sense gun regulation like stronger background checks and limits on semi-automatic weapons sales isn’t fooling public safety activists.

They’re organizing massive protests to greet convention-goers and keeping tabs on which political leaders show up to pledge their fealty to the gun lobby.

“The real question now is which elected officials will choose to side with violence and go kiss the ring in Houston this weekend instead of siding with communities crying out for public safety,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told the press.

Cesar Espinosa is executive director of the Houston-based immigrant rights group FIEL (Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha / Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle). FIEL is among the organizations leading the protests this weekend.

“This is not the time or place to have this convention,” Espinosa said. “We must not just have thoughts and prayers from legislators, but rather we need action to address this public health crisis that is affecting our communities.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had a similar message for the Republicans converging on his city. “You can’t pray and send condolences on one day and then be going and championing guns on the next,” he said. “That’s wrong.”

The NRA isn’t listening, though. In 1999, immediately after the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, the group invaded Denver to hold a big gun meeting. In Houston this weekend, they’re just following the same pattern of spitting in the faces of victims’ families.

Making a killing off of killing

When it comes to the political economy of mass shootings, the pattern at work is really quite simple. Once a mass shooting occurs, there is inevitably talk of stricter gun control legislation. This comes from activists and Democrats determined to do something about automated murder, as well as from right-wingers who want to exploit the situation for the sake of selling more guns.

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” President Joe Biden, a longtime crusader for gun control when he was in the Senate, asked after Uvalde. “Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?”

The answer, of course, is to be found in Congress and on Wall Street.

The Democratic-run House has passed several gun control measures, but the guarantee of a filibuster in the split Senate means that, once again, nothing will be done immediately to respond to this crisis. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has signaled he has no intention of giving gun legislation any hearing.

Same old, same old.

As soon as legislative proposals are made, the NRA and its allies are up in arms—figuratively and literally—about attacks on the Second Amendment. Americans are told that the government is plotting to take away all their guns.

Then what happens? Gun and ammunition manufacturers and retailers watch as sales soar. They, in turn, continue funding the operations of the NRA, which is a multimillion-dollar operation itself. Panic buying ensues, donations for the NRA pour in, and gun company shareholders cash in. (It’s worth noting that the only recent mass shooting which did not see an immediate jump in gun company share prices was the Buffalo grocery store massacre, where most of the victims were Black.)

Of course, the other beneficiaries of this cycle can’t be forgotten—McConnell and the Republican Party. The NRA, which is little more these days than the political arm of the gun industry, can be counted on to deliver its members’ votes and dollars into the GOP fold at every election. Republicans in Congress reciprocate by ensuring that no serious piece of gun legislation ever becomes law. And in the state legislatures they control, Republicans typically weaken existing gun laws after a mass shooting.

It is a mutually beneficial relationship that ties the gun industry, the gun lobby, and the Republican Party together.

The important role that mass shootings and the political machinations of the NRA-GOP alliance play in driving gun profits has been frankly admitted by many top executives in the industry.

At a global conference for retailers hosted by Goldman Sachs in 2015, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ed Stack, announced that “The gun business was very much accelerated based on what happened after the [2012] election and then the tragedy that happened at Sandy Hook.” He was referring to the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

A year earlier, James Debney, the chief executive of Smith & Wesson, told an investor’s meeting that “the tragedy in Newtown and the legislative landscape” had driven sales up “significantly.” He commented that “fear and uncertainty that there might be increased gun control drove many people to buy firearms for the first time. You can see after a tragedy, there’s also a lot of buying.”

But Tommy Milner, the head of Cabela’s, one of the leading gun retailers, was even more blunt. Before a group of investors in Nebraska in 2015, he stated that his company’s business “went vertical…I mean it just went crazy.” The transcript from the conference says that Milner explained to shareholders that his company “didn’t blink as others did to stop selling the AR-15.”

The AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle based on the U.S. military’s M-16 and was the type of gun used at Sandy Hook, at Uvalde, and at so many other mass shootings. The decision to continue selling this particular gun was a competitive advantage for Cabela’s against other retailers and brought in “a lot of new customers.” Milner said the company benefitted from the “tailwinds of profitability.”

Breaking the GOP Senate blockade

Reversing the country’s crisis of gun violence is a long-term task that will take many different forms—political, cultural, and economic. There are already some measures that could be taken right away, though, if it wasn’t for Republican intransigence.

In March of last year, the House passed two different bills aimed at expanding and strengthening background checks for anyone trying to buy a gun.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has no intention of allowing gun legislation to pass. Any progress on the issue depends on breaking the GOP’s filibuster blockade. | Susan Walsh / AP

One of them would eliminate the so-called “Charleston loophole,” named after the 2015 massacre in South Carolina, which allows a person to buy a gun if their background check is not complete within three days. The other targets the “gun show loophole,” which lets private sales of firearms to go on totally unregulated, with no background checks at all, at gun shows or online.

Neither bill has been brought forward for a vote in the Senate because of McConnell and the GOP. With the chamber split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, the mere threat of a filibuster by the right-wing minority is enough to sink legislation before it even gets a hearing.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who introduced her own far-reaching but similarly doomed gun control package in 2019, expressed the frustration of the moment after Uvalde. “The breakdown of the political process has never been clearer. We can’t even act to keep our own children safe,” she said on Tuesday.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin similarly placed the blame directly where it belongs: “We can’t budge the Republicans an inch on this issue of gun safety.”

With the Democratic Party unable to rally recalcitrant lawmakers in its own right-wing faction like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to eliminate the filibuster, it falls to voters and the people’s organizations to change the makeup of the Senate in the elections this fall.

Shrinking the GOP’s hold in the Senate below 40 seats to block their filibuster power and keeping them in the minority in the House are key to winning progress on gun legislation—as well as every other pro-people priority, from labor law reform to voting rights protections to COVID relief and more.

The right wing’s bullets and political dollars must be countered with our votes.

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People’s World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People’s World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

People’s World, May 27, 2022,