‘We’re responsible for the history we make:’ Lawmakers push for migrant labor rights / by Dan Neumann

Activists with Migrant Justice protest outside a Hannaford supermarket. | Terry Allen via Migrant Justice, Facebook

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 19, 2023

Maine lawmakers and advocates spoke in favor of three bills Tuesday that would expand labor protections for migrant farmworkers in an effort to correct historic wrongs rooted in racism. 

Previous attempts in the Maine Legislature to create protections for migrant workers have been unsuccessful.

“Farmworkers are often hidden from view. Their homes in labor camps often cannot be seen from the road, and they often live in isolation alone and separated from the greater community,” House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) said in a public hearing held by the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee.

She asked, “Why are the hours that farmworkers toil to feed us worth less than those of other working people? There’s no good answer to that question.” 

The speaker is sponsoring two bills: LD 398, which would extend the state’s minimum wage and overtime laws to agricultural workers, and LD 525, which would give them the opportunity to unionize and collectively bring employment concerns to their bosses without fear of retaliation. 

Migrant workers are currently exempt from those protections, which are guaranteed to all other employees under federal law.

Sen. Craig Hickman, a Democrat representing Kennebec County, has also introduced legislation, LD 1483, that would prevent farm owners from denying their workers from accessing services such as health care during work hours.

Hickman and Talbot Ross are two of five Black lawmakers in Augusta, comprising the most diverse legislature yet. They said their experience as descendants of slaves compels them to address protections of an underclass of agricultural workers, a majority of whom are hispanic. 

“I am a descendant of slaves and sharecroppers. I’m a descendant of indentured servants,” Hickman said. “So, any opportunity that I have to mitigate against the legacy of slavery in our nation, which is all of our history, I will take.” 

Hickman, who is a farm owner, added: “We inherited a system we did not create. We didn’t create this system and yet it harms many, nonetheless.” 

‘I was forgotten’

Both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, which passed in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, excluded farmworkers as well as domestic workers. The carveout was intentional, as the historical record shows that Southern members of Congress moved to specifically exempt groups of workers who were predominantly people of color from labor standards to keep them in an economically subservient position.

Since the 1960s, migrant workers have been eligible to make the federal minimum wage — currently $7.25 an hour — but they have never been covered by the state’s wage floor, currently $13.80 an hour.

Dozens of farm owners spoke out against the legislation at the hearing Tuesday, with many insisting the temporary workers they hire are paid higher than the state’s minimum wage.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin), a co-owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, said the legislation would ruin Maine farmers.

“If you want to continue farming in the state of Maine, I think you better take a look at what we do,” he warned members of the Labor and Housing Committee. 

He referenced the sale of the notorious DeCoster Egg Farms in Turner, one of the top egg producers in the country, that made headlines in the 1990s for housing workers in squalid conditions. Maine legislators at the time crafted a narrowly-focused law that only affected DeCoster workers, granting collective bargaining rights to laborers at poultry farms with 300,000 or more laying birds. 

“With all the laws we are talking about, we drove a valuable industry out of the state,” Timberlake said.

Advocates with Mano en Mano, a Downeast-based organization that works with farmworkers statewide, read the testimony of several seasonal workers who could not attend the hearing because of work obligations. That testimony in some cases countered farm owners’ talking points. One migrant, who said she made less than Maine’s minimum wage, relayed her experience sleeping in a bed bug-ridden dormitory. 

Another worker said a farm owner threatened to fire him after he was kicked in the head by a dairy cow. He sustained a broken nose and is permanently disfigured. “He told me that if I couldn’t work, I needed to leave. I had no option. I felt at that moment that I was forgotten,” he wrote. “But I knew that I needed the job, so I had to pay a coworker to cover my shifts.”

One-quarter of farmworkers live in poverty

Maine is not the only state where lawmakers are trying to expand rights for farmworkers. Currently, 12 states guarantee collective bargaining rights to such workers. And in 2021, state legislatures with Democratic majorities in Washington and New York passed overtime rights for farmworkers. Colorado has gone the furthest, granting state minimum wage, overtime and organizing rights to agricultural laborers.

Arthur Phillips, a policy analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said that one-quarter of farmworkers live in poverty — a rate almost four times higher than the rest of Maine.

Mike Roland, director of the Bureau of Labor Standards at the Maine Department of Labor, said Talbot Ross’ legislation would apply to nearly 35,000 migrant workers, many of whom come to Maine on guest-worker visas.

The legislative campaign by Talbot Ross and Hickman comes after other efforts in Maine have ended in disappointment. In 2022, Gov. Janet Mills drew national headlines for vetoing a bill similar to LD 525 (the collective bargaining measure) sponsored by former Democratic lawmaker Thom Harnett. The previous year, some Democrats voted with Republicans to kill a measure to extend minimum wage and overtime laws to farmworkers.

Lawmakers hope this year will be different.

“‘Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed,’” Hickman quoted President Abraham Lincoln during the hearing. “‘Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves the higher consideration.’” 

Talbot Ross spoke about the moral imperative to correct the historical record. 

“Generation after generation have been trapped in poverty, working under a wage scale that for more than four decades paid them a lower minimum wage and continues almost a century later,” she said. “While we are not responsible for writing that history, we are responsible for the history we make. We are responsible for what we do to change it.”

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 dan@mainebeacon.com.

Mainers back $200 million proposal to build affordable housing / by Dan Neumann

Activists with Housing Justice Maine call on state lawmakers in 2021 to create affordable housing. | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 15, 2023

Housing advocates and developers are speaking out in favor of legislation proposing a $200 million investment to increase the affordable housing stock in the state.

They say that’s just the beginning of what’s needed to address Maine’s housing emergency.

“We have reached a crisis point. ​​We can’t water that down,” said Laura Mitchell, the director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which represents housing developers. “We are decades behind in building housing. It’s been since the 1970s that we last met the demand. Our workforce concerns are because of our lack of housing.”

Rep. Rebecca Millett, a Democrat representing Cape Elizabeth, introduced LD 226  at a public hearing held by the legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Housing on Friday. The bill would allocate $200 million from the state’s general fund through fiscal year 2025 to go toward the construction of affordable housing.

As Beacon previously reported, 40% of Maine renters are considered cost-burdened by rent, while homelessness has increased and there is still a shortage of over 20,000 affordable housing units in the state.

Housing advocates insist that the state needs to be building around 1,000 units a year to meet the scale of the problem. Maine currently produces far less than that through existing funding streams.

Millett explained during the hearing that the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Maine is $1,045. In order for a person to afford this, while spending the advised 30% of their income on housing, they would need to make $20.10 an hour. Maine’s minimum wage is $13.80.

“That’s staggering,” she said. “This squeeze means that Mainers have less money for other necessities like nutritious food, transportation and health care, let alone retirement savings.” 

In 2021, as housing prices spiked in Maine during the pandemic, Millett led the effort to secure $100 million to build approximately 1,200 energy-efficient units while also improving labor standards through the use of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). Her legislation passed but was pared back to $20 million by the legislature’s budget-making committee.

She said the demand for housing far outpaces what was approved that year and even what is proposed this year.

“I do believe that the need is even bigger than that,” Millett said. “The $200 million is more of a determination of the state’s capacity, because the need is huge.”

Millett’s bill is just one of a series of measures introduced this session to address the housing crisis. Housing advocates at the public hearing Friday advised lawmakers to approach the issue from all sides. That means investing in new construction while at the same time funding rental assistance (a federal emergency rental assistance program run by the state lapsed at the end of last year) and passing tenant protections.  

Millett’s funding proposal will be considered alongside housing priorities laid out in Gov. Janet Mills’ budget plan, released in January, that calls for allocating $30 million to the Rural Affordable Rental Housing Program and the federal Low-Income Housing Credit Program — two private-public development partnerships overseen by MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, through which they issue tax subsidies or forgivable loans to entice developers to build affordable units or refurbish old buildings.

Erik Jorgensen, MaineHousing’s director of government relations, told lawmakers in a budget hearing in February that the governor’s proposed $30 million would build an estimated 250 affordable housing units. The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee boosted the proposal to $40 million and the final sum will be determined later this session as lawmakers approve a supplemental budget.

Advocates say that is still far below what is needed.

“There are a number of solutions we have proposed and needs that we have identified, but the most simple and important solution is this: build more housing,” said Ruben Torres of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “This is not an immigrant-specific issue. This is not a Portland-specific issue. This is an issue that affects all of us from all parts of the state.”

Affordable housing developers and advocates alike agree that the lack of affordable housing drives a vicious cycle in Maine, driving young workers out of a state already hobbled by an aging and declining workforce. 

They said now is the time to break that cycle.

“We need to be looking back at this period in time and say, ‘We did the right thing. We took care of our people and we invested at a bold level to start to meet that demand,’” Mitchell said.

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 dan@mainebeacon.com.

Wabanaki Tribes make case for self-determination in historic address before legislature / By Dan Neumann

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis addresses Maine lawmakers in the State of the Tribes.

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on March 16, 2023

For the first time in state history, leaders of all the Wabanaki Nations addressed both chambers of the Maine State Legislature on Thursday. They called for recognition in law and policy of Wabanaki inherent sovereignty. 

Underscoring a rift between the tribes and Gov. Janet Mills on the issue of tribal self-determination, the Democratic governor was not in attendance. In contrast, Congressman Jared Golden, a Democrat from Lewiston who sponsored federal legislation to give the tribes more rights, listened to the address from the floor of the Maine House. 

“The blood sweat and tears of our ancestors run through this land and it will continue to do so for generations to come,” Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said as part of a State of the Tribes address. “We are not going anywhere. All we want is for the state government to break decisively from the past and join the era of self-determination for tribal nations that has proven so successful throughout the rest of the country.” 

“We are capable of self-governance and should be treated as partners rather than threats to the future of the state,” Francis added. “We want a relationship with the state government that is based on mutual trust, fidelity and respect.”

The tribal leaders’ remarks marked only the second time such an address was made to a full assembly of Maine lawmakers, the first being 2002. Thursday’s address was the first attended by leaders of all of the Wabanaki Nations in Maine — the Penobscot, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy tribes at Sipayik and Indian Township. 

Hundreds of supporters were in attendance at the Maine State House, many watching the address on televisions in spill-over rooms. 

Supporters watch the State of the Tribes address in a spill-over room at the Maine State House. | Beacon

“We’re asking to be put on the same footing as the 570 federally recognized tribes across the country,” Mi’kmaq Chief Edward Peter Paul said. “Those tribes are subjected to federal Indian laws passed by Congress. We’re asking to be treated fairly.”

A multi-year legislative effort to overhaul the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, which was opposed by Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey, passed both chambers before it died in the legislature’s budget-making committee last year. That legislation, pushed for by the tribes and their allies, would have altered tribal-state relations on matters from taxation to gambling to wildlife management by overhauling the Settlement Act, which has excluded the tribes from rights and protections created through federal law since its passage over 40 years ago.

Mills’ office told reporters before the address that she would not attend due to a scheduling conflict, though her office did not specify what that conflict was.

Mills has opposed the push for full recognition of Wabanaki sovereignty since taking office in 2019. As Maine’s former attorney general, Mills also opposed the tribes in court during some of the legal battles over tribal rights that led to the current stalemate. 

Mills has brokered some compromises with the tribes in recent years, including signing her own bill, which allows tribes to run online sports betting markets, and another to address the water crisis at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation. But she has pushed back against adopting all 22 recommendations made by the Maine Indian Land Claims Task Force.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), the sponsor of the previous tribal sovereignty bill, has submitted new legislation this session, LR 1184, which would again attempt to implement the recommendations of the task force, though details have yet to be released. The bill is a top priority for the tribes this session. 

“Our success is your success,” said Clarissa Sabattis, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. “As a result of this unchanging law, we have become outliers in Indian Country, economically underperforming when compared to tribes across the continental U.S.” 

Sabattis was referring to a report by the Harvard Kennedy School released late last year 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 these benefits as a result of the Settlement Act.

“With that,” she added, “I’d like to say I look forward to our continued partnership and forging a new path forward that is not only better for our tribe, but is also better for this great state that we all call home.” 

At the federal level, Golden sponsored a bill that would have allowed the Wabanaki access to all future federal legislation passed on behalf of tribes. That federal legislation, which Mills lobbied against, 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. 

Golden received applause from state lawmakers when thanked by tribal leaders for sponsoring the legislation.

Rena Newell, chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Sipayik and the tribe’s former representative in the Maine House, expressed optimism about the tribes’ relationship with lawmakers. 

“Over these past four years, the Wabanaki Nations and the legislature have seen growing momentum with respect to collaborative policymaking and relationship building,” she said. “Today is a sign that our momentum will only increase and, for this reason, I am excited for what the future holds for Wabanaki-state relations.”

Tribal leaders emphasized on Thursday that lawmakers have a chance to advance tribal sovereignty this year. To overcome a likely Mills’ veto, however, two-thirds of the legislature would have to favor the legislation, which means gaining Republican support will be a major part of the tribes’ strategy this session.

House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Republican representing Winter Harbor, has expressed some support for tribal priorities. In January, Faulkingham traveled with Talbot Ross and House Majority Leader Maureen Terry (D-Gorham) to Indian Island in the Penobscot Nation to meet with tribal leaders. 

Democratic leaders pledged to rectify the failures of past legislatures after the address.

“Symbolic gestures do not right decades, if not centuries, of wrong. They do not erase the ugly and deeply painful history regarding the state’s treatment of the Wabanaki Tribes, nor do they make up for the legacy of empty promises and their consequences,” Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) said in a statement.

Talbot Ross echoed Jackson: “By no means does the State of the Tribes address forgive a shameful history of pain and tragedy, discrimination and injustice,” she said in a statement. “However, it can signify an enduring commitment to perform the critical work of reflection, understanding, and collaboration in order to continue to heal past wrongs and work towards a more just and equitable future.”

William Nicholas, chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township, closed his remarks on Thursday calling on lawmakers to come together to form a veto-proof majority.

“Almost every treaty made has been broken, modified or interpreted to benefit the state. We must come together to make some positive, inclusive change,” he said. “Limited sovereignty is not sovereignty. The opportunity to address the unfair treatment that Maine tribes have received since 1980 can be worked on and end with this legislative body of leaders.”

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 dan@mainebeacon.com.


Mills’ budget criticized for prioritizing funding for police and jails over mental health needs / by Dan Neumann

Image courtesy of the Maine State Prison

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on February 16, 2023

Maine’s jails and prisons are full of individuals struggling with addiction and mental health issues. At a joint legislative hearing on Tuesday, advocates expressed dismay over Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to dramatically increase the Department of Corrections budget while allocating a fraction of that amount for mental and behavioral health.

“This year’s budget has an additional $45 million for corrections and only $3.5 million for mental health,” Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said in testimony to the legislature’s budget committee on Tuesday.

“Jails have been begging us for a decade to provide mental health services in the community because jails are not trained or equipped for the influx of people with untreated mental health diagnoses,” she added. “There are now ten times more individuals with Serious Mental Illnesses (SMI) in prisons and jails than there are in state mental hospitals. We are pushing people to the deep end of the pool. We should not be surprised that they are drowning. Our investments should be in prevention.”

In the joint hearing hosted by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, lawmakers took public comment on a proposed two-year budget submitted by Mills last month. 

The governor has asked lawmakers to pass a budget that provides $2.5 million to the Opioid Use Disorder Prevention and Treatment Fund and $3.7 million to the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, housed within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. 

But those investments in treatment and harm reduction are meager when compared to the proposed increases for the Maine Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC). 

Mills is calling for $461 million for the MDOC, a $45 million increase from the last biennial budget, and $127 million for policing, an $80 million increase.

“The governor’s budget proposes to substantially increase the DPS’s staffing and funding, increasing the number of positions in public safety by 21.5 (from 643.5 positions to 664) and increasing DPS’s budget by more than 10%,” Maine ACLU policy director Meagan Sway said. “For too long, we have relied on the policing institutions in our country to solve challenges better suited to our healthcare, housing, and educational systems.”

‘We need to change our actions and funding priorities’

The governor’s handling of the state’s overdose crisis has drawn a mixed response from Mainers dedicated to ending the failed “War on Drugs” and transitioning the state to a public health response. That is because Mills has focused on expanding both treatment and incarceration with calls to crack down on fentanyl traffickers.

hyper-focus on fentanyl — which the governor mentioned several times in her State of the Budget address Tuesday evening — misses the point expressed by harm reduction advocates that policymakers should instead be moving to decriminalize substance use disorder to allow people to more easily access treatment. 

During her speech, Mills announced additional measures to combat the drug overdose epidemic, which saw a 13% jump in fatalities last year. She proposed doubling the number of trained people who can respond with law enforcement to calls about substance use and help get people connected to treatment. She also pitched adding 140 residential treatment and detox beds.

The call for additional treatment beds was welcomed by many in the recovery community, who note that Maine currently only has 91 beds that are allocated for detoxification from substances.

At the same time, Mills’ budget proposes to increase funding for the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s last youth prison, from $16.3 million to $18.1 million, despite the fact that the number of young people incarcerated at the facility has dropped by over two-thirds in the last five years. 

MDOC Commissioner Randall Liberty said during the hearing Tuesday that the increase is necessitated by higher labor costs at the youth prison. 

The Maine ACLU urged lawmakers not to increase funding for Long Creek, citing a July 2022 conclusion by the U.S. Department of Justice that Maine unnecessarily segregates children with mental health or developmental disabilities at the facility, in psychiatric hospitals, and in residential treatment facilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Instead of increasing Long Creek’s budget, the legislature should invest these funds into community-based supports that allow families to stay together and the state to meet its legal obligations,” Sway said.

In 2021, Mills vetoed a bill to close Long Creek, calling the measure “fundamentally flawed because it forces the closure of the State’s only secure confinement option for juvenile offenders before safe and appropriate alternatives will be available.” 

Advocates warned lawmakers Tuesday that Mills’ budget proposal fails to build those alternatives to incarceration at a time when the opportunity is potentially greater than ever, given a projected budget surplus for the next fiscal year. 

“The legislature is charged with crafting a budget during a time of unprecedented opportunity and abundant resources,” Sway said. “Where you invest those resources now will determine the health of our state in the coming decade.”

Similarly, Malory Shaughnessy of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services said the budget needs to match the growing consensus that the overdose crisis is a public health problem requiring a public health solution.

“We keep saying we cannot arrest and jail our way out of a problem, but each successive budget attempts and then fails to make this shift,” she said. “We need to fundamentally shift our thinking, but more than that we need to change our actions and funding priorities to reflect our new thinking.”

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 dan@mainebeacon.com.

‘People are desperate:’ Budget committee encouraged to make bold investments in affordable housing / by Dan Neumann

Activists with Housing Justice Maine call on state lawmakers in 2021 to create affordable housing. | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on February 10, 2023

As Maine lawmakers begin to draft a two-year budget, they heard Thursday from housing advocates and industry experts about the sea of Mainers struggling to afford shelter. 

“People are desperate,” Avesta development officer Nate Howes told members of the legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and Select Committee on Housing before a joint public hearing on Thursday. 

Howes explained that northern New England’s largest nonprofit affordable housing developer received 9,000 applications for the units they advertised last year. That was a 30% increase in applications from what Avesta received in 2021, and double the number they received in 2020, when housing prices began to skyrocket. Forty-three percent of the applications Avesta processed in 2022 were from residents who identified themselves as homeless.

“A recent vacancy in East Bayside received 40 complete applications in less than 24 hours,” Howes added, referring to a housing complex in Portland. “We received 1,000 applications for a recent 52-unit project in South Portland. One of our leasing specialists had to change her phone number because she was getting calls and texts in the middle of the night.”

Housing remains a top priority for lawmakers again this year. The national average home sale price has increased by 35% in less than two years. Forty percent of Maine renters are considered cost-burdened by rent, homelessness has increased and there is still a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units in the state.

In response, the Select Committee on Housing was formed this session to consider a host of proposals to study land use, increase housing density, mitigate the impacts of short-term rentals, and provide rental assistance. There is also a proposal to create a public developer that would maintain ownership of the housing it develops, which would be governed by the renters themselves.

Topping the list of housing priorities this session will be funding new affordable housing construction. Gov. Janet Mills’ initial budget proposal, released last month, would allocate $30 million to the Rural Affordable Rental Housing Program and the federal Low-Income Housing Credit Program — two private-public development partnerships overseen by MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, through which they issue tax subsidies or forgivable loans to entice developers to build affordable units or refurbish old buildings.

The proposal was applauded by several private and nonprofit housing developers at the hearing on Thursday. 

Erik Jorgensen, MaineHousing’s director of government relations, said the $30 million proposed by the governor would build an estimated 250 affordable housing units. That would be on top of 87 other projects currently in the pipeline, he said, funded by the federal government and previous state allocations. 

That’s a step up from the production pace of previous years, when resources only allowed for about 180-220 affordable housing units a year to come online, and around 12 units each year for supportive housing for Maine’s unhoused population.

But Jorgensen told lawmakers that pace may fall off now that the state has spent its COVID relief funds from the federal government.

“While we’ve not yet recorded our figures for 2022, this period will, in all likelihood, be a high-water mark for our agency’s programmatic funding, which has started again to enter a period of contraction as pandemic-era special programs are winding down,” Jorgensen said.

In light of that contraction, some advocates told legislators on Thursday that the $30 million proposed by the governor is not nearly enough to address the overwhelming need for low-cost housing, and they urged lawmakers to up that total.

“While public investment is necessary to alleviate Maine’s affordable housing crisis, $30 million is insufficient to address the shortage of affordable housing,” said Josie Phillips, a budget and tax policy fellow with the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

“Housing insecurity and homelessness — driven by high costs of housing — have been repeatedly shown to endanger personal health, educational outcomes, and financial security,” Phillips continued. “Maine’s State Economist has also identified a lack of affordable housing to be one of the most significant challenges facing the state economy, particularly as it deters younger adults from migrating into the state and offsetting the aging population and declining labor force.”

Several others told lawmakers about the need to fund rental assistance for low-income Mainers. Maine’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, launched in 2020 with federal relief funds, ended in November and is no longer accepting applications. 

“I believe there is no single action to take that is more important than an improved, expanded, and fully funded rental assistance program,” said Craig Saddlemire, the development organizer for the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, which operates 15 affordable housing units in Lewiston that are owned and managed by its residents. 

“Historically, only 25% of income-eligible households have been able to receive housing assistance, due to housing assistance programs being severely underfunded,” Saddlemire said. “This means a majority of the people who need housing assistance are facing the constant threat of eviction, homelessness, or foregoing other basic needs because they are burdened by housing costs.”

Maine Equal Justice policy advocate Ann Danforth echoed the need for rental assistance, saying many low-income and unhoused residents can’t afford to rent even a place defined as “affordable.” For example, many of the units built through the federal Low Income Tax Credit are put on the market at 60% of the area median income, which in Portland is a rent of about $1,100 per month.  

“Those most in need still cannot afford a Low Income Tax Credit unit or a Rural Affordable Rental Housing unit if it is not subsidized,” Danforth told lawmakers. “Even if the housing supply outpaces the demand, this will never drive down rental prices enough to be affordable to many of our low-income neighbors.”

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 dan@mainebeacon.com.

Senate Republicans block proposed heating relief, housing assistance plan / by Evan Popp

Photo of chamber voting board for LD1 | Republicans block emergency winter energy relief plan

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on December 8, 2022

Senate Republicans on Wednesday rejected Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to provide immediate aid to Mainers through direct checks, other relief for home heating and investments in housing assistance, dealing a blow to efforts to get funds to people before the winter. 

Mills announced the details of the $474 million spending package late Tuesday, and lawmakers were poised to take swift action on the first day of the new legislative session, with the governor pushing for passage of the plan with a two-thirds majority that would allow funds to get to Mainers more quickly.

The House overwhelmingly passed the measure, but the bill failed to reach the two-thirds threshold in the Senate. The vote in the Senate was 21-8 in favor of the measure, with 6 senators excused from voting. All Democrats voting in the Senate supported the plan, while all Republicans voting rejected it. In addition, five of the six excused senators were Republicans, who as a party made high energy prices a centerpiece of their failed campaign to win back control of the Blaine House and the Maine House and Senate in the November election.    

Republicans criticized the bill for not going through a public hearing, the normal path a bill takes before being considered by the full legislature, arguing that lawmakers shouldn’t approve hundreds in millions in spending without such a process. A Republican-led motion to refer the bill to a committee for a public hearing also failed Wednesday.

However, Mills pushed back against the GOP’s argument in a statement released Wednesday night, reiterating the seriousness of the issues facing Mainers as winter approaches, with heating costs high and a dire housing crisis facing the state. She also noted that the proposal had been negotiated beforehand with both Democrats and Republicans.

“The plan I proposed incorporates the feedback of Republican and Democratic leadership in the Legislature. It builds on the nation-leading inflation relief measure we delivered earlier this year — and it is the fastest, most direct way to get help to Maine people as we work to bring down energy costs in the long-term. Tonight, a minority of the minority choose to reject this help for Maine people,” Mills said, calling for Republicans to approve the plan.

Mills’ proposal, which would have been partially paid for using a forecasted $283 million budget surplus, was headlined by checks of $450 to a projected 880,000 Mainers, meant to help people pay for household heating. The checks were income-targeted, but a wide swath of Mainers, including those in upper-income brackets, would have received the money. Those eligible included single filers making less than $100,000, heads of household making less than $150,000 and couples filing jointly making less than $200,000. The governor’s office said in a news release that the plan would have provided an estimated $900 for the average Mainer, with funds arriving by mid-January.  

Along with the direct checks — a similar proposal to the $850 checks Mainers received earlier this year — Mills’ plan included other spending such as $40 million for the Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps homeowners and renters pay for heating costs. In addition, the measure contained $10 million for the Maine Community Action Partnerships to help that group deliver emergency fuel for people who need it. 

Separate from the spending bill, Mills also took executive action to help distribute heating aid to older, low-income Mainers, announcing that the state will provide a payment of $500 to about 13,000 households.

Also in the spending plan proposed to the legislature was $21 million meant to aid the Emergency Housing Relief Fund formed by Mills and the legislature earlier this year, which works to prevent people from experiencing homelessness.

Mixed reaction to plan from progressive lawmakers

While Democrats ultimately backed the plan before it was sunk by Republicans, some progressive lawmakers said the $450 checks could have been better targeted. They argued that those on the upper end of the income threshold — individuals making nearly $100,000 and couples making nearly $200,000 — didn’t need the money and that targeting the plan could have opened up funds to provide additional help for low-income people. Mills said she and other Democrats agreed to raise the income thresholds to include wealthier people at the request of Republicans, who still rejected the measure. 

“There is necessary relief in the package to keep the most vulnerable Mainers housed and warm during the winter, but at the same time, the state will be sending checks to well off individuals and families who don’t need the help,” Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) said of the plan Wednesday morning before the legislature voted on it. 

“We simply cannot continue governing crisis to crisis with the governor giving the legislature limited options for shaping budgets that fund desperately needed programs for all Mainers,” Lookner added. 

Rep. Sophia Warren (D-Scarborough) also expressed concerns with the plan. She said while newly-elected House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) pushed hard for a more equitable measure, other stakeholders were not willing to support such a package.

Like Lookner, Warren criticized the direct checks, arguing that high-income earners would receive money they don’t need. She said a better plan would be to lower the income threshold for checks to under $75,000 for single filers, which would free up additional money for the emergency rental assistance program, which is slated to soon run out of funds. Warren said securing funding for that program is an emergency and is something frontline communities have been asking for. 

“This emergency measure has misplaced priorities inconsistent with the needs of Maine people,” she said, adding that the package did not “meet this moment and address this crisis.” 

Other legislators also expressed concern about the plan even as they praised some aspects of the measure. 

Rep. Sam Zager of Portland said the bill was good but not perfect. Zager said he fully supported the $21 million within the measure for emergency housing, which he noted Talbot Ross and others negotiated into the package. However, he said an even better bill would adjust the qualifications for the checks to better help low and middle-income people heat their homes and stay sheltered or use some of that money for other important policy priorities the legislature will consider this session. 

“Longer term, we would be well served to optimize insulation and rapidly move to renewables like solar and wind. But the bill takes us some steps in a good direction … in time for winter,” Zager said Wednesday afternoon before the vote. 

Rep. Ben Collings (D-Portland) added that while the bill is 95% beneficial, he and some other lawmakers “want to end the precedent of emergency relief going to households with close to 17k in monthly income,” calling it “absurd” that such households would have received the money.  

Overall, Rep. Chris Kessler (D-South Portland) said the Democratic caucus worked hard to get aid to people who need it the most, such as those who are at risk of losing housing and those who are homeless. While the heating assistance plan could have been improved, Kessler said the bill would have helped people.

“I am not going to throw away the baby with the bathwater,” he said Wednesday morning.

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 evan@mainebeacon.com.

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 dan@mainebeacon.com.

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 evan@mainebeacon.com.

Beacon, October, October 19, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/

Maine News: Dems back progressive reforms in platform but protesters say party fell short on tribal rights / by Evan Popp

Top photo: Gov. Janet Mills outside the Maine Democratic Convention over the weekend | Photo via Maine Democrats on

Maine Democrats finalized their party platform at a convention over the weekend in Bangor, including some progressive policy principles such as the right to health care, housing, food and reproductive freedom but also drawing the ire of youth advocates who pointed out the party’s failure to pass a bill recognizing the sovereignty of the Wabanaki tribes this past legislative session. 

The convention comes as Maine — and the rest of the country — is preparing for a pivotal midterm contest in November. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will face a difficult reelection battle against conservative Trump supporter Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden will likely be up against Republican Bruce Poliquin in a race for Maine’s Second Congressional District. 

Around the state, legislators will also face reelection in November. Progressives are hoping to gain ground in Augusta but Republicans have their sights set on breaking the Democratic stronghold in the State House. 

Against that backdrop, Democrats gathered to set their policy agenda and listen to speeches from party leaders such as Mills, Golden, U.S. Rep Chellie Pingree, Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and state Senate President Troy Jackson.

“So much of what we value so deeply is on the ballot,” Mills said in a speech at the convention, Spectrum News reported. “The right to affordable health care, including safe and legal abortion, the right to a great education for every child in Maine regardless of their ZIP code.”

“We won’t go back,” the governor said at multiple points. 

Tribal sovereignty a point of contention 

One of the most powerful moments of the event, however, took place outside the convention hall, where around two dozen youth leaders held a demonstration Saturday calling for Democrats in Maine to fully support recognizing the sovereignty of the Wabanaki tribes. 

Specifically, the youth groups rallied around LD 1626, a bill the legislature considered this session that would have ensured that tribes in Maine are treated like other federally-recognized Indigenous nations around the country. Advocates wrote chalk messages in support of Wabanaki rights and talked with elected officials who were headed into the convention about the importance of the measure.

Despite receiving massive grassroots support, that bill was opposed by Mills throughout the legislative process. And although almost every Democrat in the legislature supported the bill during initial votes, they failed to advance the measure to the governor’s desk after she applied pressure on lawmakers to kill it, likely hoping to avoid a high-profile veto of a bill widely supported by the party’s base. 

“Democratic leaders did not respect the tribes nor represent future generations when making the decision to kill LD 1626. We were watching, and we see you,” over 20 youth leaders at the protest said in a joint statement. 

In an interview, youth community organizer Luke Sekera-Flanders said young people were there to bring attention and accountability to the death of the tribal sovereignty bill in the Democratic-led legislature and to ask the party to stand in solidarity with the Wabanaki and do everything it can to support Indigenous rights going forward. 

“Respecting the inherent sovereign rights of the Wabanaki nations is on the current party platform. LD 1626 was a key step, it was really the only measure to fully recognize tribal sovereignty put forward this session and [Democrats] did not support that as strongly as they could have,” Sekera-Flanders said. 

Youth activists outside the Maine Democratic convention on Saturday pushing for tribal sovereignty | Sunlight Media Collective

The party platform approved over the weekend states “we must recognize, honor, and uphold the sovereignty and self-governance of all tribes in Maine.”

Democrats in the State House did work with tribes to make some progress this legislative session, approving a bill to address the water crisis at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation and a measure to allow tribes to run online sports betting markets. But Wabanaki leaders don’t view either of those bills as a full recognition of their sovereignty. 

Saturday’s protest outside the convention drew significant attention, as Sekera-Flanders said convention security personnel washed away chalk messages supporting tribal sovereignty. He added that someone inside the hall called the police about the messages and about the protest and young people’s efforts to engage with legislators around LD 1626. He noted the irony of the authorities being notified, given that Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was recently widely mocked for calling police about a chalk message in front of her home in support of abortion rights. Sekera-Flanders said he doesn’t know who specifically within the convention complained to the police. 

On Monday, a Maine Democratic Party official told Beacon the party itself did not call the police on the youth activists. 

The fate of the sovereignty bill is just one frustration some advocates have with Mills, a conservative Democrat who has vetoed a number of progressive bills, including on issues related to workers rightspublic electricity and criminal justice reform

Still, Mills and Democrats will hope to gain significant support from left-leaning voters in the upcoming election and have repeatedly drawn attention to LePage’s disastrous legacy as governor, during which he made a series of racist commentsslashed the social safety netignored dangerous environmental problems and opposed policies to stop harmful treatment of LGBTQ Mainers. 

At their convention earlier this month, the Maine GOP doubled down on extreme right-wing policies, such as proclaiming marriage as between only a man and a woman (an unpopular stance with the majority of Mainers), curbing abortion rights, anti-union policies, anti-immigrant proposals, and policies that would make it harder for certain people to vote.  

Dems’ platform seeks to protect basic rights under attack

The Maine Democratic Party platform approved at the convention is vastly different from its GOP counterpart. For example, in the wake of a draft Supreme Court opinion taking aim at Roe v. Wade, Maine Democrats reiterated their support of bodily autonomy and reproductive health care. 

The platform also includes support for LGBTQ rights, a direct contrast to the stance of the Maine Republican Party and the legacy of LePage, who vetoed a bill to ban conversion therapy that was later signed by Mills.   

In addition, Democrats call for adequate health care, housing, education and food for all and argue it is a “moral failure in such a rich and powerful nation that many people do not enjoy such basic human rights.” 

In many areas, the platform does not put forward specific policy prescriptions for solving political issues, instead relying on value statements. The platform is non-binding, although it does provide a glimpse into what issues are important to the party. 

Maine Democrats also say in their platform that they support equal pay for equal work, a living wage, paid vacation and family and medical leave, and the right to unionize. In addition, they state that too much wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the few and argue for progressive taxation as a remedy. Such values haven’t yet resulted in legislative action, though, as Democrats have had full control in Augusta since 2019 but haven’t reversed LePage-era tax cuts favoring the wealthy and corporations. Mills during her first gubernatorial campaign pledged not to raise taxes, complicating the path for progressive revenue bills in the legislature. 

Along with economic rights, the platform spells out the imperative to address the climate crisis, with the party stating that without bold action, “none of our visions for a better world will be achievable.” Environmental policies put forward in the document include reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a rapid shift to green technology and increases in energy efficiency. 

The platform also includes support for full funding of public education and “an honest treatment of all subjects, with a curriculum guided by educators, not corrupted by political agendas rooted in prejudice or unhinged from reality,” likely a reference to efforts by conservatives, including the Maine GOP, to censor certain forms of education, such as teachings about race and sex ed.  

Criminal justice reform is mentioned in the document as well, with the party stating that the War on Drugs has had racist, unjust consequences and that reforms to the system must emphasize rehabilitation and evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for those with mental health issues and substance use disorder. That section, however, is one of several in which the platform contains differences with Mills’ view. The governor is a former prosecutor who has blocked or opposed a series of criminal justice reforms. 

In addition, the Press Herald reported that some specific progressive criminal justice reform measures, such as decriminalizing drugs and sex work and ending mass incarceration and cash bail, were put forward as proposed amendments but not included in the platform. A proposal to support the campaign to replace Central Maine Power and Versant with a consumer-owned utility also failed. Mills has opposed the push for a consumer-owned utility.  

The Democratic platform also expresses concern about the increasing hostility toward democracy exhibited by many, such as those in the Republican Party who have trumpeted former President Donald Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen and have failed to condemn the attempted January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

“American Democracy faces an existential threat. The values and rights espoused in the U.S. Constitution are under attack,” the platform reads. “Maine Democrats are pledged to protect them and to ensure they endure.”

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 evan@mainebeacon.com.

Originally published in the Maine Beacon, May 17, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/

Maine News: Advocates rally for tribal sovereignty as Mills signals opposition to long-sought reform / by Evan Popp

Around 100 people rallied in front of the State House on Wednesday to celebrate the progress that has been made this legislative session on recognizing the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki and to call on Gov. Janet Mills to sign multiple bills that would ensure the tribes are treated like other Indigenous nations around the country. 

The event featured speeches from members of the Wabanaki and lawmakers supportive of tribal sovereignty along with songs and dancing and a group of Indigenous people in a circle drumming together. 

Wednesday’s rally comes as the Wabanaki have secured big victories in the Maine Legislature on bills to reinforce their sovereignty. However, challenges lie ahead, as Mills has signaled that she may veto the most sweeping of those measures, LD 1626, which would reset a relationship with the state that Indigenous leaders have long argued is fraught with paternalism and unfair treatment.

“It’s up to her — she has an opportunity to change her mind and be a decent person,” said Darrell Newell, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, of Mills. He added, “We hope the governor will sign [these bills] into law. Maine will be a better place for it.”  

Significant victories for Wabanaki 

LD 1626, which would provide the Wabanaki with rights similar to those enjoyed by other tribes around the country, passed the legislature last week and is now awaiting funding approval from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee before being sent to Mills’ desk. The bill would alter the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 to strengthen tribal communities’ criminal jurisdiction, recognize the rights of tribes to regulate hunting and fishing on their lands, and affirm the Wabanaki’s right to regulate natural resources and land use on their territory. Despite an unprecedented level of support for the bill, Mills has threatened to veto the legislation. 

Another priority bill that has passed the legislature this session is LD 906, a measure to address the unsafe and deteriorating water system at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation, known as Sipayik. Lawmakers passed that bill last week with strong bipartisan support. 

The measure was then recalled from Mills’ desk and an amendment was approved by both chambers that says the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s jurisdiction when it comes to drinking water does not extend beyond its territory and that the tribe can’t exercise jurisdiction over nonprofit public municipal corporations in enforcing ordinances related to drinking water. The bill was passed by both chambers and is now before Mills for consideration. 

A sign at the rally Wednesday | Beacon

A third bill, LD 585, seeks to facilitate better tribal-state relations, implement tax benefits on tribal land and legalize and establish a regulatory framework for sports wagering on Wabanaki territory. An amendment to the bill approved by the House and Senate clarified “any licensed casino is eligible to receive a facility sports wagering license” but that a commercial track in Bangor is not eligible. LD 585 is a compromise between Mills and the tribes. However, while supportive of the bill, the Wabanaki do not view it as a substitute for the sovereignty provided by LD 1626 and LD 906. 

Like LD 1626, LD 585 has also been passed by both chambers and is awaiting funding approval from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee (AFA) before being sent to Mills’ desk. Lawmakers and proponents of tribal sovereignty expressed concern about the status of LD 1626 and LD 585 early Wednesday afternoon. With the legislature set to adjourn after Wednesday, advocates feared those bills could die before getting to Mills’ desk if there wasn’t enough time for AFA to approve funding for them. However, later Wednesday, both the House and the Senate passed an order to extend the legislative session, providing more time for the bills to be approved by AFA and sent to Mills.

‘Unprecedented support for tribal sovereignty’ 

The rally Wednesday featured a large number of speakers, including Passamaquody language and cultural teacher Dwayne Tomah, who noted the avalanche of support that the tribal sovereignty bills have received. Both LD 1626 and LD 906 had marathon public hearings, with a litany of people speaking in support of the bills. Over 1,500 people testified in favor of LD 1626 alone. Tomah also noted that many legislators have lined up behind the tribal sovereignty bills.

“Historically, this is unprecedented,” Tomah said. “It’s unprecedented the amount of support that we’re receiving from this building and also the amount of support we are receiving from the people of Maine. The people of Maine, their voices are being heard. This is a long time coming historically.” 

Multiple lawmakers also spoke at the rally. Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner) called on Mills to sign the tribal sovereignty measures, saying it is a matter of fairness and justice. 

“The time for words is over. It’s action that we need right now. It is all the words you have given us that resulted in these bills being put on the governor’s desk and the action we need is for them to be signed,” Harnett said. 

As Beacon previously reported, Mills, a Democrat, has used her veto authority to nix several legislative priorities popular within her party, including an attempt to close Long Creek youth prison and a bill that would have allowed voters to weigh in on replacing Maine’s two major investor-owned electric utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, with a consumer-owned utility. Earlier this year, Mills drew national headlines for vetoing a bill that would have allowed farmworkers to unionize.

If LD 1626 is indeed vetoed, Sen. Rick Bennett, a Republican from Oxford County, said he hopes the legislature will override the governor, arguing that government must create laws that are right and morally just. 

“I want to express my hope, my sincere hope, particularly to the members of my own party who have opposed the initiative, that they will reconsider,” Bennett said.

Still, regardless of the ultimate outcome, Ernie Neptune, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, said getting the tribal sovereignty legislation passed through the legislature has been heartening and shows the power of persistence. 

“This legislative session has been monumental with regards to our sovereignty,” he said, adding “My brothers and sister: never give up. It is worth every bit of effort to fight for what you believe are your inherent rights.”   

Photo: Supporters of tribal sovereignty at the State House rally Wednesday | 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 evan@mainebeacon.com.

Beacon, April 21, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/