workers' rights

Subscribe to workers' rights feed
Updated: 5 min 45 sec ago

Advocates for $15-an-hour federal minimum wage press Biden for a meeting

Tue, 06/07/2022 - 09:51

The Poor People’s Campaign is urging President Joe Biden to meet with low-income workers before the organization’s march on Washington, D.C., on June 18 to advocate for a $15 federal minimum wage.

“What we cannot do is be silent anymore,” Rev. William Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said during a press conference Monday at National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C. 

Barber, who is also the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, said the anti-poverty campaign wants Biden to have a meeting with low-wage workers, religious leaders and economists.

The Poor People’s Campaign also requested a meeting with members of Congress for June 15. 

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and has not increased since 2009. Biden has urged Congress to increase the minimum to $15 but Democrats’ attempts to do so have not succeeded.

Research has shown that a gradual increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 would benefit women and workers of color, particularly in the South. 

A 40-hour work week with a minimum wage of $15 an hour comes out to an annual salary of about $31,000. That salary would be just above the federal poverty lines for a family of four, which is $27,750 a year. 

Biden in April of last year signed an executive order to require a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors such as nursing assistants at Veterans Administration hospitals, maintenance workers, cleaning staff and food service workers.

On Monday, Barber said that the nearly 40 million people living in poverty are also suffering the most from inflation.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that consumer prices for food have increased 8.8% in March this year, the largest 12-month increase since May 1981. “Within food, prices for food at home rose 10.0 percent and prices for food away from home rose 6.9 percent,” according to BLS.

“The only way up is to lift from the bottom,” Barber said.

Beth Schaffer of South Carolina, appearing virtually at the press event, said she works more than 60 hours a week, seven days a week, and is still struggling to pay her rent.

“The minimum wage is sentencing us to poverty,” she said. 

Members of the Maine Poor People’s Campaign will soon be traveling to Washington to meet with other activists from across the country.

Willie Hurley, another organizer with the Maine Poor People’s Campaign, told Beacon last month that he hopes the rally will help connect disparate grassroots campaigns together in a shared push for justice. 

“We have all these separate tiny little movements and organizations all working on their different things. This is an opportunity to bring all those things together,” Hurley said. “It’s 40% of the country, poor people. It’s the sleeping giant.”  

For Mainers interested in getting involved, more information on the bus schedule can be found here. Information on how to RSVP for the event can be found here.

Photo: Rev. William Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. | via Poor People’s Campaign

Categories: Beacon tags

Group homes say they’re being shorted by state in effort to raise care worker wages

Fri, 05/20/2022 - 08:59

Touted as one of the top achievements in a $1.2 billion supplemental budget passed last month, state lawmakers say they are countering Maine’s severe shortage of trained direct care workers to care for seniors and people with disabilities by finally funding a long-sought wage increase.

But some directors of state-subsidized congregate living facilities say the state’s plan to raise wages to $15.94 an hour, or 125% of the state’s minimum wage, is essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, as the wage boost will come at the expense of their other program costs.

“We see all the rhetoric out there around how they have finally and ultimately fulfilled this 125%-of-minimum-wage initiative. It’s not true,” said Todd Goodwin, CEO of the John F. Murphy homes, which runs 37 group homes in the Lewiston-Auburn area. The agency is the largest group living provider in Maine.

Direct care professionals, many of whom are women and people of color, care for seniors and people with disabilities in their homes or group settings and are some of the lowest paid employees in the state. Low reimbursement rates from MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, often leave agencies without enough funds to adequately pay their employees. That low pay, combined with often having to work far more than 40 hours a week to cover staffing shortages, has led to an extremely high turnover rate among care workers and uneven services for those in need. 

A multi-year legislative campaign to address the high turnover gained steam in January 2020 when the Commission to Study Long-Term Care Workforce Issues issued its report recommending that direct care workers be paid at least 125% of the minimum wage. In 2021, a bill introduced by Rep. Jessica Fay (D-Raymond) to adopt the recommendations put forth by the commission, including a pay raise, was supported by group home agencies and their workers and passed the legislature.

The bill wasn’t funded until this year, however, when it was included in the bipartisan supplemental budget signed by Gov. Janet Mills on April 20. Lawmakers said agencies will receive back pay retroactive through January 2022 when Fay’s law went into effect.

‘Bait and switch’

Care worker Phoebe Shields with South Portland resident Ruth. | Beacon

But group home managers who Beacon spoke with say the wage hike is partially being funded by shifting money from their operations budgets. They explained that it is because the state switched to a new funding model late last year without notifying them.

From 2007 until Fall 2021, group home agencies were funded through MaineCare based on what is known in the industry as the Deshaies funding model. Under the model, a per hour reimbursement fee is paid out in a lump sum to each agency, 40% of which must be allocated for staff wages, 18% for payroll taxes and benefits, 25% for program costs and 11% for administration costs, along with a 6% provider tax.

Under the old model, agencies received a total reimbursement rate of $29.28 per service hour, 40% of which allowed only for a $11.71-an-hour wage for direct care workers. This left agencies with $17.57 per hour for all other program costs. 

But under the new model adopted by the state last year, the allocation for other program costs has shrunk. The total per hour reimbursement rate was raised to $32.13, but subtracting the higher wage of $15.94 an hour from that rate leaves the agencies with $16.19 per hour for program costs.

That seemingly small difference between the remaining $17.57 per hour under the old model and the $16.19 per hour left under the new model will yield significant impacts on an agency’s annual budget, explained Ray Nagel, the executive director of the Independence Association, a community in Brunswick for people with intellectual disabilities. 

“That is a lot of money,” he said. “In one year alone, just for my agency, that’s a difference of about $360,000.” 

Goodwin echoed Nagel, saying that in order for the state to fully fund the pay raise and not cut into their other programing funds, the total per hour reimbursement rate for agencies would need to be raised to $39.85, not the $32.13 currently set by the state.

Goodwin maintains that the state did not inform group home agencies that they were no longer using the Deshaies funding model. He said he and other providers have made records requests under the Maine Freedom of Access Act to find out more about the state’s new funding model.

“Absent a published methodology upon which to check claims, there is nothing about this that doesn’t stink,” he said.

Rep. Michele Meyer (D-Eliot), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, gave this response when Beacon asked her about the agencies’ concerns over cutting operation costs as a result of the state’s new funding model.

“There are many providers in Maine and we were glad to hear from them during the public hearing process for the supplemental budget,” she said in a statement. “The HHS Committee prioritized their needs and asked the Appropriations Committee to fund them. The law we passed requires that impacted rates include a minimum of 125% of minimum wage for the labor component of the rates. Please note, providers must choose to pass that on to their staff.”

Nagel agreed that there has been a lack of transparency from lawmaker about the new funding model. “They’re just trying to baffle people by saying, ‘We put millions of dollars here, we put in this and this and that,’” he said. “But when you look at the details, that’s 100% wrong.”

He continued, “They essentially reallocated the rate so that now our agencies are paying for the labor portion at the expense of the programming. We’re extremely upset. We think it’s a bait and switch.”

Wages need to continue to rise, advocates say

Alan Cobo-Lewis, a professor at the University of Maine who serves as head of the school’s Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies, said raising direct care worker wages is critical to eliminating large waitlists for various home or community-based care services. Several thousand Mainers in need of care are currently on such lists. 

But Cobo-Lewis, whose son has a disability and relies on daily-living support services, said the controversy about how the state has funded the wage boost is ultimately beside the point, as even the long-sought raise to $15.94 an hour can’t compete in today’s labor market against less demanding jobs.

“125% of minimum wage was a pre-pandemic recommendation,” he said. “I think that the state needs to invest in getting direct care worker wages up to around $20 an hour. Anything less devalues direct care workers and the people with disabilities who they support.”

He added that other state initiatives to recruit new direct care workers are likely to be unsuccessful unless workers are provided a living wage. “All the money being spent on one-time incentives, career lattices, websites to promote direct care worker jobs, etc., isn’t going to address the crisis unless hourly wages also go up,” he said.

Top photo by Getty.

Categories: Beacon tags

Progressives across Maine step up to run for legislature in pivotal 2022 election

Mon, 05/16/2022 - 08:49

Looking to grow the number of progressives serving in the state legislature, left-wing candidates around the state are running for elected office with campaigns centered on issues like guaranteed access to health care, tackling the state’s affordable housing crisis, strong funding for education and addressing climate change. 

Progressives already serving in Augusta have helped Democratic majorities in the House and Senate make strides on issues such as housing, health care, environmental pollution and drug policy reform. However, their numbers proved too small during the legislative session that ended last week to pass bills recognizing the sovereignty of the Wabanaki, restoring health benefits to immigrants through the state’s Medicaid program and tracking the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons and jails, among other failed measures. 

Frustrated by the difficulty of creating systemic change in the legislature and a conservative Democratic governor who has vetoed many of their bills, some progressives decided not to run for reelection in 2022 despite being eligible for another term.  

However, others across the state are stepping forward to continue building momentum for meaningful and much-needed social, economic and environmental reforms. 

Some notable candidates in primary contests that will be decided when voters go to the polls June 14 include progressive advocates such as Mike Tipping and Patty Kidder. Tipping, a senior strategist at Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), is running for the Democratic nomination in Penobscot-county based Senate District 8. He is the founder of Beacon and has worked on campaigns to raise Maine’s minimum wage and clean up mercury in the Penobscot River. Tipping will face Abe Furth, co-owner of Orono Brewing Company, in the primary. 

Kidder is also a longtime activist with Maine People’s Alliance and was heavily involved in Mainers Together, a community relief effort the group launched after the onset of the pandemic. Kidder is running as Democrat for House District 141, which includes Shapleigh, Newfield and parts of Springvale and Sanford. She will face Springvale resident John McAdam in the Democratic primary.

Other progressives are running unopposed in their primaries. In Lewiston, community organizer and Bates College intercultural education coordinator Mana Abdi is running as a Democrat to replace Rep. Heidi Brooks, who is term-limited. Abdi would be the first Somali-American to serve in the Maine Legislature if ultimately elected. 

Small business owner and affordable housing activist Cheryl Golek is also running unopposed in the Democratic primary for a Harpswell-based House seat after her only opponent recently dropped out. In Kennebunk, education advocate and Maine Democratic Party platform committee member Dan Sayre is the sole member of his party running for that House seat. And in Waterville, seeking to work outside of the two-party system, Isreal Mosley is running as a progressive independent for House District 65, a seat that will likely feature a three-way race with a Democrat and a Republican in November. 

As candidates kick off their campaigns for the legislature, Beacon spoke with some progressives about why they are running and what they hope to accomplish if elected. 

‘Results driven’ community activist seeks Lewiston seat 

Abdi, running for District 95 in Lewiston, said she wants to bring tangible change to her community. 

“I’m result driven. So I think for me this is one way of fighting for the things that already exist that are good for our community and then fighting to change the things that are not serving them well,” Abdi said of her decision to run.

If elected, the 26-year-old would be one of the younger legislators in a lawmaking body that features a large contingent of retired Mainers. But Abdi said as a Muslim, an immigrant, and a Black woman, she’s long had to operate in spaces where diversity is often lacking. 

Mana Abdi | Photo via Facebook

“I don’t think that will be anything that will phase me because I’ve existed within the white space and dominantly male space for so long now,” she said. “My job is to ensure that [District] 95 gets their needs met and represented in the best way possible and that’s exactly how I’m going to show up in every space.” 

Abdi — who worked with Disability Rights Maine and the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office prior to her position at Bates — said the two policy areas she would focus on most closely in the legislature are affordable housing and ensuring adequate funding for schools. 

When she was collecting signatures to get on the ballot, Abdi said she witnessed some unsafe housing situations in the community. She argued that more investments must be made to create affordable housing that meets people’s basic needs. Housing is an issue for Maine as a whole, with a shortage of about 20,000 affordable units statewide. 

On the issue of education, Abdi said proper funding for schools has become even more crucial amid a public health crisis that has upended how institutions used to operate. 

“If the pandemic taught us anything it’s that we can’t do without teachers and we shouldn’t want to do without teachers,” she said. “Paying them adequately and fairly should be a top concern.”

Abdi will officially launch her campaign on May 21 at noon at 191 Lisbon Street in Lewiston. Going forward through the summer, she said her goal is to knock on as many doors as possible to “talk to voters and essentially neighbors” about her candidacy and the general election in November. 

Longtime advocate runs in Midcoast-area district 

Another progressive seeking office is Golek, who is running in House District 99, a Midcoast-area seat that includes all of Harpswell and part of Brunswick. The seat is currently held by Democrat Jay McCreight, who is term-limited. 

Golek said she’s running because she wants to make sure the voices of people who haven’t traditionally been represented in the State House are heard.

“I want to be at the table when decisions are being made and I want to make sure people in my district and people with lived experiences [are at the table],” she said. “When they’re at the table, it creates the strongest legislation we can get.” 

Cheryl Golek | Photo via Facebook

Golek has experience as a volunteer lobbyist at the State House pushing for change, including on issues such as recognizing the tribal sovereignty of the Wabanaki Nations. She’s also a small business owner, co-founding a long-term alternative care center in Harpswell for those living with memory impairments called The Vicarage by the Sea. 

In addition, Golek was appointed to a commission convened in 2021 to study zoning and land use restrictions. That commission developed a bill that was ultimately signed into law to cut red tape in order to spur affordable housing development in Maine. 

Golek added that she has also been involved with the Maine Equal Justice Partner’s Circle, which helps Mainers who have experienced poverty develop leadership skills. Golek herself knows what it’s like to be low-income, explaining that she was born into generational poverty and was poor for half her life. 

“That gives me a personal understanding of the economic realities that Mainers face and it has fueled a desire since my youth to work on poverty-related issues in the state,” she said.

Top issues Golek would focus on if elected are rebuilding the state’s affordable housing supply, which she believes will help ease workforce shortages; strengthen health care systems to ensure everyone has access; providing support for education and teachers; and championing reproductive rights, which are increasingly under attack across the country with the Supreme Court likely to strike down Roe v. Wade  

Golek said she will continue knocking on doors to meet with voters and hear their concerns in the lead-up to the primary and the general election. 

“Affordable housing and health care, those are the two top things that I’m hearing about,” she said.

Citizen lobbyist looks to take grassroots experience to Augusta

Kidder, a longtime organizer and activist, hopes to use her experience pushing for change in Augusta from the outside to inform her work as a lawmaker if elected. 

“I’m running because I’m tired of fighting on the outside and want to work for Maine families and working Mainers and low-income Mainers on the inside,” said the Springvale resident, who has faced poverty herself. “We’ve been able to make some progress fighting from the outside but the real work gets done on the inside.” 

Kidder, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2020, is seeking a southern Maine-based seat, District 141, that was redrawn during redistricting. Kidder said being elected as a Democrat in that seat could be an uphill battle, as there are more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district. However, she said there are also a significant number of unenrolled voters and those eligible to vote who aren’t registered. 

“I feel that the key for any Democrat to win is getting those voters out to the polls,” she said. 

Patty Kidder (left) speaks at a rally in support of Medicare for All in 2021 | Photo by Marie Follayttar

First, though, Kidder — who has done volunteer work on issues ranging from supporting Medicare for All to pushing for a consumer-owned utility — will have to emerge from her June 14 primary in which she’ll face McAdam. Kidder said she’s been hard at work knocking on doors in the district and hearing about the issues people are most focused on. 

She added that there is an upcoming event at McDougal Orchards in Sanford on May 22 at 4 p.m. that will serve as the campaign kickoff for Democrat Kendra Williams, who is running in Senate District 33, but that will also feature an opportunity to talk with other local candidates such as Kidder. 

If elected, Kidder said her top issue would be working to make health care affordable for everyone along with continuing to build on legislative initiatives to address issues with Maine’s troubled childcare system.

She added that more must be done to combat the climate crisis and reduce dependency on fossil fuels. While lawmakers have made strides in passing some environmental protection bills, advocates worry the actions taken aren’t enough and argue the state could have used a portion of its historic surplus this year to fund more aggressive measures to tackle the issue. 

“We need to do something … or we won’t have a planet to live on,” Kidder said. “That’s pretty high stakes.”    

Building on progress, preventing political backslide important to Kennebunk candidate

Sayre is an additional progressive running this year. He is seeking a House seat, District 135, that includes part of Kennebunk and is currently held by Democrat Chris Babbidge, who is term-limited. 

“I want to keep the progress that this legislature and governor have made going forward,” he said of his reason for running. “I look back at this most recent legislative session and great things have been done around expanding access to health care and health care affordability in Maine, but more needs to be done there.” 

Dan Sayre | Photo via Facebook

Sayre has a background in book publishing in higher education and has also been spearheading a project by the American Society of Engineering Education on workforce development along with serving on the Maine Democratic Party Platform Committee.  

In addition, he waded into local politics in Kennebunk as one of the leading voices against an ultimately unsuccessful conservative-led initiative to recall school board members in RSU21, which includes Kennebunk, Arundel and Kennebunkport. Opponents of the recall effort, including Sayre, argued the measure was a fig leaf being used by local conservatives in reaction to the district’s greater emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion.

If elected, Sayre said one issue he wants to work on in particular is getting the explosion of short-term rentals in the area under control. 

“The profilitation of short term rentals limits the stock of affordable, full-time year-round rentals and is making this community a community where the drawbridge has been pulled up on housing for people below a certain income level,” he said. 

Along with housing, ensuring health care is affordable and preparing Maine for the new economy by strengthening educational systems are additional priorities for Sayre. 

While Sayre said he’s been making an effort to reach out to people who might not agree with him politically, he noted that he is concerned by the platform of the Maine Republican Party — particularly its attacks on schools — and sees his job if elected to the legislature as both fighting for a stronger economy and better education for all while also protecting against backsliding on those issues and rights such as reproductive health.  

“I don’t want to overlook the fact that we need to protect the rights of many groups of people who are subject to abuse by the legal system, by law enforcement and by society in general,” he said. 

Top photo: Lewiston legislative candidate Mana Abdi (left) and Harpswell legislative candidate Cheryl Golek (right) | Photos via Facebook 

Categories: Beacon tags

Maine Poor People’s Campaign mobilizes for national ‘Moral March on Washington’ in June

Wed, 05/11/2022 - 09:25

Mainers from across the state will travel to Washington, D.C., next month as part of a march to demand that those in power stop ignoring the 140 million poor and low-income people living in the U.S and work with them on a moral agenda of justice and equality. 

The event, called the “Moral March on Washington & to the Polls,” will take place June 18 at 9 a.m. in the nation’s capital. The rally is being organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a national coalition building power across marginalized communities to change the moral narrative in the U.S. and demand an end to a series of interconnected injustices. The organization is based on a campaign of the same name created by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the 1960s to unite poor and impacted people around the country. 

In Maine, the state chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign is mobilizing to bring hundreds of people down to D.C. to participate in the June march. 

“There’s going to be impacted speakers from across the country,” Joshua Kauppila, a Bangor-based organizer working with the Maine Poor People’s Campaign, said of the event. “We’re going to be lifting our moral agenda up to those down in D.C., and really highlighting how these interlocking injustices of systemic poverty, systemic racism, militarism, the war economy, ecological devastation and that distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism are all part of the problem that we need to solve and that those solutions need to come from poor people.”

Kauppila said the event will feature speeches, music and cultural arts, and a voter registration drive as well as the opportunity for people across the nation to connect over shared issues of injustice. 

“We’re facing just crisis after crisis and … poor and low-income people are so often shoved aside,” Kauppila said. 

Along with building power through community connections and solidarity, Kauppila said the event will also serve as a way to advocate for the policy priorities the Poor People’s Campaign is pushing for. Some of those political goals include comprehensive COVID-19 relief that prioritizes essential workers and marginalized populations, quality health care for all, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and universal guaranteed housing. 

Traveling to D.C.

Kauppila said the Maine Poor People’s Campaign is working with the bus share system rally.co to get people down to D.C. for the event. According to that site, there will be bus pickup locations in Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, Dover-Foxcroft, Lewiston, Portland and Waterville in the evening on Friday, June 17, to bring people to Washington. Kauppila said participants would return to Maine on Sunday morning, the day after the rally. 

More information on the bus schedule can be found here. Information on how to RSVP for the event can be found here

Kauppila said the group has raised funds to ensure that those who can’t pay for a bus ticket or other associated costs of the trip can still go, as the group wants as many low-income Mainers as possible to attend to demonstrate the potential political power of poor people. 

“We recognize that group of voters has not been activated for the primary reason that their issues are not being addressed and the politicians who claim to promote their issues don’t follow through,” Kauppila said. 

Marcella Makinen, treasurer for the Maine Poor People’s Campaign, added that the mass gathering in D.C. has the potential to be transformative in terms of demonstrating the reality of a U.S. system in which inequality has continued to skyrocket.

“It’s important to be changing the narrative on why people don’t have enough resources to eat and don’t have enough resources to pay their rent. It’s too easy to blame oneself and then that leads to depression,” Makinen said, arguing that “discovering that there’s a system where rich people get richer for not doing anything can be really liberating in and of itself.” 

Willie Hurley, another organizer with the Maine Poor People’s Campaign, said he hopes the June rally will help connect disparate grassroots campaigns together in a shared push for justice. 

“We have all these separate tiny little movements and organizations all working on their different things. This is an opportunity to bring all those things together,” Hurley said. “It’s 40 percent of the country, poor people. It’s the sleeping giant.”  

Photo: A day of action organized by the Maine Poor People’s Campaign in Bangor in 2021 | Photo courtesy of Maine Poor People’s Campaign via Facebook 

Categories: Beacon tags

Legislators sustain Mills’ vetoes of progressive labor and criminal justice reform bills

Mon, 05/09/2022 - 16:23

Continuing a pattern of opposition to a number of progressive labor and criminal justice measures, Gov. Janet Mills late last week vetoed a bill to bar retaliation by employers against workers who use paid time off and legislation to make pretrial conditions of release less restrictive. Both vetoes were upheld by the Maine House in votes on Monday. 

In total, Mills vetoed five bills from the 2022 legislative session, none of which were overturned by the legislature.

Late Friday, the governor issued a veto of LD 1338, the paid time off retaliation bill. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth), was meant to address a loophole in Maine’s first-in-the-nation paid time off law, signed in 2019. As Beacon previously reported, explicit protection from retaliation for workers taking leave was cut out during backroom negotiations on the bill amid a rewriting of the legislation by the Mills administration. Advocates fear that lack of protection could lead to workers being scared to use paid time off or being punished if they do use the time. 

The House on Monday sustained Mills’ veto of LD 1338, with 58 members voting in favor of the bill and 59 voting with the governor. A few Democrats, such as Reps. Teresa Pierce of Falmouth, Anne Perry of Calais, Ed Crockett of Portland, and Scott Landry of Farmington, voted with the governor and against the bill. Each voted for the bill when it passed the House last year. 

In her letter announcing the veto of LD 1338, Mills wrote that the absence in the 2019 law of a clause barring retaliation was “intentional” and was “so that employers and employees would have an opportunity to experience the new law and potential impacts of the law.” 

The governor argued that the best way to address the potential issue of retaliation is through a review of Maine’s laws on employment practices, which Mills is asking the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) to conduct. 

“LD 1338 would burden employers with unnecessary requirements as they continue to overcome the hardships and workforce challenges they have experienced because of the pandemic,” Mills wrote. “This is not the time to impose additional burdens without evidence of improper behavior or a comprehensive review of existing provisions of law.” 

Millett called the veto disappointing and disputed the governor’s argument that the 2019 paid time off bill intentionally left out worker retaliation protections, saying she was told during negotiations that such protections would be included in the rulemaking process. When they weren’t, Millett said she introduced LD 1338. 

Millett also pushed back against Mills’ argument that the bill would hurt employers. 

“In the [veto] letter, she does say it’s important for employees to have this protection but then also says that she doesn’t want to burden businesses. This is not a burden on businesses if they don’t retaliate. That should not be a burden,” Millett said. 

Progressive advocates also panned the veto, yet another by a conservative Democratic governor who has nixed more than half a dozen pro-worker policies during her time in office and worked behind the scenes to curtail other measures. 

“Frankly, it’s an indefensible decision,” James Myall of the Maine Center for Economic Policy wrote on Twitter. “Fear of retaliation by employers is real, and by blocking this effort to protect workers, the governor severely undermines her own [paid time off] bill.” 

Myall cited the governor’s argument in her veto letter that the MDOL hasn’t received any complaints from workers about retaliation for using their time off, which Mills pointed to as evidence that LD 1338 isn’t needed. However, Myall argued that since the paid time off law doesn’t expressly make it illegal to retaliate against workers for using their time off, it’s not surprising that no one has complained to the MDOL. He added that the Maine Center for Economic Policy found in 2019 that one-third of workers with paid leave were afraid of being retaliated against by their employer for taking that leave. 

Criminal justice measure nixed  

Mills also vetoed LD 844 on Friday, a bill to make pretrial conditions of release less burdensome. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), would have amended the bail code to mandate that pretrial release for defendants may include “only the least restrictive further condition or combination of conditions.” 

The bill would also repeal certain potential pretrial release bail conditions, such as maintaining or seeking employment, being involved in an education program, and reporting to a law enforcement agency, among others. The measure also would have made a number of other changes to Maine’s pretrial release and probation requirements in an effort to reform the state’s punitive criminal legal system. 

Along with LD 844, Mills — a former prosecutor — has opposed a number of attempted reforms to Maine’s criminal legal system, including a bill to close the state’s last youth prison and another measure last year to amend the bail code to reduce penalties when it comes to violations of conditions of release. 

In her veto letter on LD 844, Mills attacked a number of provisions in the bill and argued that by reforming the bail code, the measure would weaken the state’s justice system. 

“I object to this legislation because some of its changes are unworkable and because the bill would deprive judicial officers of important tools for protecting public safety and ensuring the appearance of defendants at trial,” Mills wrote. “These include amendments to the conditions limiting the use of alcohol, requiring participation in treatment programs during probation, and requiring the payment of fines imposed as part of a sentence as a condition of release from jail or prison.”   

The House sustained Mills’ veto Monday, with 54 members voting to override the decision of 64 supporting the governor. A handful of Democrats voted with Mills and against the reform bill, including House Speaker Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford along with Reps. Barbara Cardone of Bangor, Landry, John Martin of Eagle Lake, David McCrea of Fort Fairfield, Kevin O’Connell of Brewer, Holly Stover of Boothbay, Ralph Tucker of Brunswick, and Bruce White of Waterville. 

In a speech Monday, Morales said LD 844 was the result of three years of meetings with stakeholders, including advocates and the Department of Corrections, and would update  decades-old probation and pretrial conditions of release laws to “reflect today’s reality.” 

Morales said the governor’s veto message was disappointing, particularly since Maine’s strategic plan to address substance use involves reducing stigma, something she argued the bill would help with. 

Morales added that Mills’ concerns around the provisions related to alcohol, treatment programs, and nonpayment of fines are unfounded. 

“Using time in jail to address legal alcohol possession, failure to complete behavioral health treatment and poverty actually … creates more crime and potentially more victims by ensnaring people in the criminal justice system, which is a barrier to getting a job, getting housing, getting education. It does not reduce recidivism,” she said. 

Tina Nadeau, a defense lawyer in Portland, wrote on Twitter that Mills had once again “vetoed a criminal justice bill with the broadest coalition of support possible.”  

“I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Gov. Janet Mills is by far the biggest impediment to any meaningful (or even nominal) criminal legal reform in the state of Maine,” Nadeau said. “And it’s not even close.” 

Along with the pretrial bill and the paid time off measure, Mills this legislative session also vetoed a bill that would restrict the ability of nonvoting faculty, non faculty staff and adjunct faculty board members on the University of Maine System Board of Trustees from participating in executive sessions on collective bargaining or personnel matters; legislation to create requirements for utilities to get approval for constructing nonessential transmission lines; and a measure to create an income tax credit for timber businesses that employ new workers who meet certain conditions.

Each veto issued by Mills was sustained by the House on Monday.  

Photo: The Maine State House. | Beacon

Categories: Beacon tags

Joining wave of organized newsrooms, BDN journalists look to unionize

Thu, 05/05/2022 - 09:06

The newsroom staff of the Bangor Daily News and other Bangor Publishing Company newspapers announced on Wednesday that they had shared with management their plans to unionize.

Organizers said an overwhelming majority of eligible staff have signed cards declaring their desire to join the News Guild of Maine, Local 31128 of The NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America.

“It started last fall as a conversation about working conditions and a more equitable pay structure,” said BDN photojournalist Troy Bennett, one of the organizers. “It has not been a hard sell for people. We have close to 90% support on our document that we delivered to management this morning.” 

The union would represent about 30 BDN journalists, digital editors, page designers, photographers and editorial page writers, including staff at the Bangor Publishing Company’s other local news sites, St. John Valley Times, Fiddlehead Focus, The County, Piscataquis Observer, Aroostook Republican, Houlton Pioneer Times, Presque Isle Star-Herald and the Penobscot Times

Bennett explained that increasingly insufficient staffing levels has led to high staff turnover at the state’s only independently owned daily newspaper. 

“Especially in the last few years, it’s been a revolving door,” he said. “The working conditions are tough. So people are immediately looking for greener pastures as soon as they get here.”

Bennett said that newsroom staff want a seat at the table to fix the problem. 

“We’re just being made to work faster, faster, faster,” he said. “We’ve been asked to do more with less for so long, we assume they’re going to ask us to do everything with nothing,” he said, adding, “Why don’t we have a seat at the table and a say in our own future?” 

BDN political reporter Jessica Piper echoed Bennett’s concerns. “In the bit more than two years that I’ve been with the BDN, I’ve seen many smart, caring reporters come and go,” she said in a statement issued by the organizers. “For the newspaper to thrive, we need talented staff to stay.”

BDN journalists’ push to unionize is just the latest swell in a wave of media professionals getting organized that began in 2015. Since then, journalists or tech support staff at the New York Times, Politico, The Atlantic, Kansas City Star and Los Angeles Daily News, among other newspapers, digital outlets and broadcast stations, have all successfully certified their unions, some voluntarily recognized by management and others proceeding with elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. 

The ongoing wave of media unions has been a source of optimism for workers and advocates who are hopeful that the country is witnessing a renewal of the labor movement, as demonstrated most recently by Starbucks and Amazon workers unionizing previously unorganized sectors of the U.S. economy.

In Maine, Maine Medical Center nurses and Portland Museum of Art workers won union elections in 2021 amid opposition from management. Preble Street workers won big pay raises in their new contract signed in April. 

BDN staff are hoping that management voluntarily recognizes the union, making a union election unnecessary. Organizers and supporters are sharing a petition asking management to recognize the union.

Bennett said management has not formally responded. “They were accepted cordially and said they’d be in touch,” he said.

Photo: Yevgen Romanenko, Getty Images

Categories: Beacon tags

Maine’s ‘citizen legislature’ is mostly business owners or retired, not working class

Wed, 05/04/2022 - 08:57

As the second session of the 130th Maine Legislature comes to a close and voters gear up for statewide elections in November, new details on the day jobs and income streams of state lawmakers shed light on who is, or perhaps more importantly who is not, represented in the halls of power in Augusta.

During the legislative session, which runs from January to May or later, lawmakers spend well over 40 hours each week in committee meetings, hearings, caucus sessions and more.Throughout the year, there are myriad other commitments, from campaigning to researching bills. For that time, they are paid less than $25,000 for a two-year term.

Legislators are required to disclose all their sources of income, whether from an employer, self employment, business interests, retirement pensions, investments or other means. Their latest financial disclosures were published in March.

Of the 186 elected members of the 130th Legislature, 96, or 51%, of them are said they are self-employed or run a business. 

Sixty-seven lawmakers are owners or part owners of one or more private businesses, meaning they likely make their own schedules and have enough flexibility — and sufficient income — to participate in Maine’s low-paying state legislature. Of those businesses, 18 lawmakers get income from their own real estate or property management companies. Other businesses include agriculture businesses (8), breweries and distilleries (4), health sector (3), forest industry businesses (3), construction firms (2), manufacturing businesses (2), coffee shops (2), a daycare, an advertising firm, a used car dealership, an orchard, a golf course and a convenience store.

Additionally, 39 lawmakers say they work for themselves, meaning they likely have similar flexibility. Ten Maine lawmakers are attorneys, historically the most common occupation in state legislatures across the country. There are also business or political consultants (13), commercial fishermen and women (3), realtors (2), freelance writers (2), a dietician, a home inspector, a dog breeder and a chef. 

Lawmakers often report multiple sources of income, putting them in more than one category. For example, 10 lawmakers own a business and are also engaged in some other form of self-employment.

One quarter of policymakers are retired

Students rally at the Maine State House for climate justice in 2019. | Beacon

Maine’s aging workforce is well represented, the disclosures show. More than a quarter of Maine’s elected representatives have left the workforce. Fifty-one lawmakers say they are either retired or semi-retired. 

Twenty-six-year-old Rep. Sophie Warren, a Democrat representing Scarborough, pointed out the large number of retirees in the Maine House during a speech she gave in opposition to a $1.2 billion bipartisan budget signed by Gov. Janet Mills on April 20. She said the budget did little to address climate change and suggested her colleagues were out of touch with the priorities of young people. 

“The largest profession of my colleagues in this House is retired,” Warren said on the House floor on April 19. “If climate change is a pressing issue for yourselves, for your children, for your grandchildren, this budget does not reflect that view, nor that urgency. No serious investments towards public transportation infrastructure, no civil emergency preparedness to deal with hurricanes or rainstorms, no consumer-owned utility, no green banks, just a lot of standard stuff.”

She added, “When I came to Augusta two years ago, I was told by those in my community to fight climate change, and I heard them loud and clear. I don’t see anything that I can bring home to my constituents and tell them that we are fighting on climate change effectively in Augusta because we are not.”

Polling suggests that Warren is correct about young people. A nationwide survey of people aged 17-39 in January 2022 shows that a transition to clean and renewable energy is a top priority for them, along with publicly-funded health care through Medicare for All, taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and canceling student loan debt.

The polling also shows that young people are pessimistic about their futures and their elected representatives in government. Across all ages, races and party identifications, young people believe that political leaders in Washington, D.C. care more about the wealthy than them. They are only slightly less pessimistic about their state and local representatives.

Low-wage workers underrepresented under the dome

Activists demonstrate for tax fairness at the State House in 2019. | Beacon

Working-class Mainers — meaning those that subsist by selling their labor to an employer who sets their hours and controls the pace or the content of their work under more or less close supervision — are vastly underrepresented in the legislature. 

Maine has nearly 190,000 workers who earn a living in the low-wage retail, hospitality, childcare and health care support industries — nearly a third of the state’s total workforce — but only 12 lawmakers work in those sectors. They include three nurses, two retail clerks, one restaurant server and one substance abuse outreach worker. Of the 43 lawmakers who are paid a wage or salary from an employer, two are school teachers, one is a substitute teacher, one is a school bus driver, one is a social worker, one is an assistant school counselor, and six are part-time adjunct faculty.

In comparison, 27 elected officials get passive income by renting the apartments or vacation homes that they own, 26 get income through investments, 10 have management roles in companies, 14 have leadership positions in nonprofits or higher education, four receive inheritance, and four do not work and rely on their partner’s income or other support.

Waterville resident Isreal Mosley, an independent candidate running for House District 65, said many Maine lawmakers don’t understand just how hard it is to survive in the modern low-wage economy — full of precarious gig work or no-benefit, part-time jobs with unreliable work hours — because they don’t live in it. 

A case in point, 44 Maine lawmakers live in part off of pensions, a bygone form of retirement security that Generation X and Millennial workers will have far less access to than the Baby Boomer generation.

“If you have people for whom everything went right, they don’t have much investment in changing anything. They see it as the way that things are supposed to be done, because it worked for them,” he said. “But that’s not everyone’s experience. And I think over the years, it’s become much less people’s experience. It’s more like everyone’s working two jobs to try and make ends meet. If you’ve got two people in your household, maybe you got three jobs between the both of you.”

Mosley said lawmakers didn’t rise to meet those challenges this year. Aside from funding in the state budget to boost wages for direct care workers to 125% of the state’s minimum wage, and a key legislative victory for labor unions securing prevailing wages and equity standards for large renewable energy projects, little else happened this session that will immediately improve the economic circumstances of working Mainers. Legislation that would have expanded overtime protections to thousands of salaried workers, after failing to pass in 2020, was watered down this session to a mandate on the Maine Department of Labor to educate employers on the state’s existing, outdated overtime law.

Mosley has long wanted to run for political office but said he was only able to realistically consider it after finding work with the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit that allows him a flexible work schedule. He said the state legislature’s long hours and low pay means many people can’t afford the job. 

“I am allowed to work from home. I’m allowed to set my own schedule,” he said. “I worked the overnight shift at a hotel for seven years. There was no way that I was going to run then. I was never going to be able to make the sort of time commitment around work, especially when you throw in family commitments.”

Who’s allowed to engage in ‘public service’?

Lawmakers, activists and lobbyists in the rotunda of the Maine State House. | Beacon

Maine is one of 16 states that has a part-time legislature purportedly designed to be made up of citizens, not professional politicians. Maine lawmakers are paid $14,074 for the first year of the two-year session and $9,982 for the second. In contrast, 10 states, including Massachusetts, California and New York, have full-time legislatures with well-paid members. California lawmakers are paid $100,113 per year and have support staff.

The low pay in Maine has been a challenge for Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Lincoln), who is leaving the legislature after two terms to pursue a law degree. She said in addition to it being difficult to enter politics, the people who are the least stable economically are also least able to stay in the legislature and build power.

“I call this my part-time, part-time, full-time job because we’re in session part of the year, we’re paid part time, but the workload is full time,” she said. “The sessions are, at least for me, just super intense, because I’m working while I’m here, I’m working after I’m here, I’m working on the weekends. It just creates a situation where there’s very high burnout.”

Efforts by lawmakers to raise their own pay are often seen as dead on arrival in Augusta because it doesn’t look good politically. But a state commission decided that low pay may be creating a barrier to entry for working-class Mainers. Their report, published in 2020, suggests this barrier underlies the class privilege of the people who are afforded the opportunity to engage in “public service.”

“Each of the current and former legislators who testified before the commission indicated that they viewed their work in the legislature as a public service. They did not seek the office for the salary and benefits, nor expect to be compensated at a level comparable to what they might earn in private life,” the Maine State Compensation Commission said in its report, recommending state lawmakers’ base pay be raised to $32,000 per two-year term. 

The commission warned that “if legislative compensation is too low, the financial sacrifice of serving may be so great that it prevents some Mainers from serving, compromising the state’s vision of a broad-based citizen legislature.”

The commission found that the barrier to entry is only growing, owing to the fact that lawmaker compensation has not kept pace with inflation over the last thirty years. “For example, legislators in the 114th Legislature in 1990 received $16,500, for the two-year term which, adjusted for inflation, would be approximately $31,807 in 2019 dollars,” the report reads.

To progressives, this is a structural impediment that must be addressed in order to build a multi-racial, working-class movement that can take on the monied interests that dominate all levels of American government. 

“We’re really excluding important voices by creating or having a system that is so exclusive and so dependent on independent wealth,” Maxmin said.

Top photo: Official photo of the Maine House of Representatives.

Categories: Beacon tags

‘We are unified’: Maine Med nurses, supporters rally for fair union contract

Thu, 04/28/2022 - 08:24

Hundreds rallied in solidarity with nurses at Maine Medical Center on Wednesday morning, braving a steady rain to urge management at the state’s largest hospital to agree to adequate staffing levels, competitive benefits and wages, and other policies to improve working conditions and patient safety within nurses’ first union contract, which is currently being negotiated. 

The rally, which took place both Wednesday morning and evening, came nearly a year to the day after a strong majority of nurses at the hospital voted to join the Maine State Nurses Association (MSNA), overcoming an aggressive anti-union campaign by hospital leadership.

Now, though, nurses are still negotiating their first contract with the hospital. While progress has been made in some areas, management still has not agreed to take steps within the contract that resolve significant issues at the hospital, nurses said at the informational picket held Wednesday in front of Maine Med in Portland.   

“We are standing out here so management knows we are completely unified, that we are here and we’re not going away, and it’s time for them to realize that we deserve a seat at the table,” said Jonica Frank, a registered nurse working in the operating room at Maine Med. 

Frank said while meetings have been taking place between the nurses’ bargaining team and management, the pace of progress has been slower than the nurses had hoped. 

An important issue that still needs to be ironed out within the contract is safe staffing levels, she said. Frank said the ratio of nurses to patients must improve so that nurses are able to pay more attention to each individual patient rather than having to juggle providing care for myriad people at once. 

“One of our number one goals is to have safe staffing and Maine Med has already shot that down and said they don’t want to change our ratios. And that’s not okay. Our patients deserve better, our staff deserve better,” she said, noting that not having adequate staffing is a safety issue for patients and nurses. 

Frank added that nurses are also seeking increased safety in the workplace, additional time for breaks, and protection for per diem nurses. In material provided to the media, MSNA said the hospital is attempting to exclude per diem nurses from “just case” protections they have agreed to for other nurses, which the union said is unacceptable. 

Nadine Kern, a registered nurse at Maine Med who works in the surgical trauma ICU, said another priority with the union contract negotiations is ensuring that working conditions at the hospital lead to nurses wanting to stick around. 

“The biggest reason I’m out here is to retain the amazing nurses that we have in the walls of the hospital,” she said. “Having a fair contract and getting that as soon as possible is going to help with retention. It is the biggest thing that will help retain nurses here at Maine Medical Center.” 

Signs and supporters at the April 27, 2022 rally in support of Maine Medical Center nurses. | Beacon

Additional priorities for nurses in the contract negotiations, according to an MSNA informational sheet, include ensuring that travel nurses aren’t prioritized for hours over permanent staff, getting better accommodations for nurses working “on-call” such as increased pay and time off the next day, improved overall pay and benefits to help retain nurses, establishing a committee of nurses to advise hospital leadership on how to improve patient and nurse safety, and ending rotating shift hours that nurses say are unhealthy and unsafe. 

The informational sheet did note that Maine Med has agreed to a policy within the union contract that will ensure patients are cared for by the nurses who are most qualified to provide treatment for them and that the bargaining team has also taken steps forward on gaining protections against discrimination and unfair discipline and creating a grievance and arbitration system that will hold management accountable if the eventual contract is violated, among other other policies. 

“We are committed to making progress on all these issues in our first union contract,” said Madison Light, a registered nurse in the interventional radiology unit and a member of the union bargaining team. “That’s why we want to get the best agreement we can for our patients, ourselves and our community. Everything we win in this contract will not only benefit us, but our patients as well. There is no difference between the conditions in which we work and the conditions within which patients receive their care.” 

In response to the picket Wednesday, Maine Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Devin Carr released a statement saying that “Nurses and the hospital share a commitment to ensuring that MMC continues to be an outstanding place to both give and receive care, and contract discussions with the labor union representing nurses at MMC have been respectful on all sides.” 

“MMC is committed to bargaining in good faith and working toward a contract that is fair to the nurses as quickly as reasonable,” Carr added. “There have been 20 bargaining sessions to date and negotiations are progressing on the schedule agreed to by both parties.” 

‘We are strong’

Along with nurses, Wednesday’s rally also featured a large number of people from the Portland community, fellow union members, and advocacy groups. Walking up and down the street in front of Maine Medical Center, participants waved signs of support for the nurses and recited a litany of labor chants, such as “Portland is a union town.” 

Frank said the level of support from the surrounding community is extremely heartening and makes nurses even more resolved to win a fair first contract. She added that nurses and community members are united in wanting an agreement that will enhance patient safety. 

“We are unified, we are strong. Maine Med would love to see a crack in our foundation. Look at this. It’s not there. There’s no crack there,” Frank said, pointing toward the large crowd of supporters. “We are strong and they need to recognize that and they need to start working with us. They need to give us a good contract.” 

Kern agreed, saying the level of support for the union demonstrates the impact nurses have. 

“Almost every single person here, if they don’t work at this hospital, their lives have been affected by this hospital and their lives have been affected by a nurse,” she said. “So it just shows how much we are embraced by the community here, and it just feels really good that people do have our backs.”

“Workers and the World Unite” read a banner at the April 27, 2022 rally in support of Maine Medical Center nurses.| Beacon

After the march in front of Maine Med, supporters gathered at a nearby park, where fellow union members and advocates expressed support for the nurses’ bargaining effort. 

Jason Shedlock, president of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council and regional organizer for the Laborers’ International Union, noted that union members frequently do construction work at the Maine Medical Center facilities. 

“God forbid anything ever happens to those men and women. It’s you that will take care of them inside that hospital,” he said. “So, selfishly, we want to make sure you’re well rested, we want to make sure you’re well paid and that you’re well taken care of.”

The nurses’ bargaining drive is also supported by dozens of state lawmakers, who sent a letter Wednesday to Maine Medical Center President Jeff Sanders and Board of Directors Chair Kathy Coster urging the hospital to agree to the changes pushed for by nurses. 

“We know Maine Medical Center nurses care deeply about improving staffing, safety in the workplace, patient safety and retention of employees. We support progress on all of these fronts as it will benefit all Mainers. We, as elected leaders, respectfully urge Maine Medical Center to negotiate and settle a fair contract in a timely manner,” the letter reads. The document was signed by over 55 lawmakers, including Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford). 

Organized labor scores victories 

The fight for a fair first contract for Maine Medical Center nurses comes as the organized labor movement has renewed momentum behind it. Advocates said 2021 was a watershed year for building worker power in Maine, pointing to victories such as the formation of the Maine Med union along with a union for workers at the Portland Museum of Art and a litany of successful contract negotiations. 

While the number of workers in a union was still down significantly from organized labor’s heyday, there was also increased activity in the workers’ rights movement around the country in 2021, with over 100,000 workers voting to go on strike during the course of the year and thousands standing on picket lines to push back against workplace conditions that have often gotten more dangerous amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Such activity has only escalated in the early months of 2022, as successful unionization campaigns take place around the country at large corporate entities such as Starbucks. Labor also won a massive victory earlier this month when workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted to unionize, overcoming an aggressive union-busting campaign by the powerful corporation.

In Maine, one of the most closely-watched unionization campaigns in 2022 is at Bates College, where workers are attempting to form a bargaining unit amid an anti-union campaign by the college. The results of that election are currently delayed because the Bates administration is seeking to split workers into different bargaining units.

Top photo: Nurses and supporters rally in front of Maine Medical Center in Portland on April 27, 2022. | Beacon 

Categories: Beacon tags

Podcast: The legislature ends and the activism continues

Thu, 04/28/2022 - 07:21

Cate, Esther and Mike discuss the final outcome of the Good Samaritan law, housing legislation, tribal sovereignty negotiations and what was funded in Maine’s state budget.

Also: Opportunities to continue to make an impact on important issues, starting with a statewide meeting on childcare on May 9th.

Plus: Share your thoughts on the role of gender in Maine politics and media, ask a question or leave a comment for a future show at (207) 619-3182.

Give your input on the podcast and what you’d like to hear with our podcast survey.

Subscribe to the podcast feed right here using any podcasting app or subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

Categories: Beacon tags

House advances zoning reform bill as Maine seeks to tackle affordable housing crisis

Tue, 04/19/2022 - 09:03

A bill aimed at reforming zoning laws and cutting red tape to allow for development of affordable housing units passed its final vote in the Maine House on Monday, putting the measure on the path to becoming law if ultimately funded by the legislature. 

The bill, LD 2003, is an effort to begin to address Maine’s affordable housing crisis by reducing barriers to the construction of units. Among other things, the bill makes it easier for property owners to build accessory dwelling units on lots zoned for single-family use.

The numbers behind Maine’s housing crisis are stark. The state is experiencing a shortage of about 20,000 affordable options and around 25,000 Maine households are on a waitlist for federal Section 8 housing vouchers. In addition, nearly 60% of renters in the state spend half their income on housing. 

Low-income Mainers are bearing the brunt of the crisis. A study from 2021 found that the average wage needed in the state to afford a two-bedroom rental home was $21.39 an hour, far above Maine’s $12.75 an hour minimum wage

“The lack of affordable housing in Maine has reached a crisis level and we all understand there is a need to act,” said House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), the sponsor of the bill, adding that, “This legislation could create more housing opportunities in every community in Maine.”

LD 2003 was originally larger in scope but was scaled back amid opposition from some local authorities in a move that advocates said represented a missed opportunity for bolder action to address Maine’s housing crisis. However, even after those changes, the bill was still opposed by the Maine Municipal Association along with many Republican lawmakers.

Despite the reduction in scope, affordable housing proponents still view the measure as an important step forward and applauded the advancement of the legislation. Amy Sanchez, a community advocate in Lewiston who lived in a shelter for three months after leaving an abusive relationship, said the bill could help those in her situation by facilitating the creation of more housing in Maine. 

“I couldn’t find any place to go. I know my experience isn’t unusual — housing is more and more expensive all the time, and there just aren’t enough places to go around,” Sanchez said. “About 24,000 Mainers pay more than half our income on housing. That’s not right. LD 2003 helps communities and property owners do the right thing by increasing the number of homes in our communities. I hope that means in the future someone in my situation doesn’t have to go through what I went through.” 

Cate Blackford, public policy director at the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), also praised the bill, arguing that it would begin to address exclusionary zoning practices that can make it difficult for working-class Mainers to attain housing. 

“Communities need housing of all kinds, because people need all kinds of homes, depending on their income, stage of life, and other factors,” Blackford said. “Mainers should have the opportunity to live in the communities where they grew up, to live where they have ties, and to age in place. We should be able to live near where we work, and be near our loved ones.” 

“People also shouldn’t be locked out of communities they love because no housing exists that they can afford,” Blackford added. “We all benefit when communities are both economically and racially diverse, and measures like LD 2003 will represent a good step forward to claiming those benefits.” 

While primarily supported by Democrats, the bill was backed by some Republicans in both House and Senate votes. Monday’s final vote in the House passed 77-57. The bill was passed in the Senate on Friday by a 20-13 margin.

Later on Monday, the Senate placed the bill on the Special Appropriations table, where bills with a fiscal impact go for funding consideration. 

While the state’s supplemental budget is still being finalized, a version of that spending plan approved by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee last week contains funds related to costs from LD 2003. 

Photo: House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, right, speaks at a press conference promoting LD 2003 | Beacon

Categories: Beacon tags

‘Unconscionable’: Lawmakers criticize budget plan to send checks to higher-income Mainers

Fri, 04/15/2022 - 13:18

In a vote just after midnight on Friday morning, the legislature’s budget committee increased the income threshold for one-time checks that the state plans to send to Mainers. It’s a move that some lawmakers argue would provide money to those who don’t necessarily need it at the expense of underfunded social programs that could be buoyed by Maine’s historic surplus. 

The vote by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee (AFA) was to approve the state’s supplemental budget, sending it to the full legislature for consideration. The decision by the committee was unanimous in most areas of the budget, including the vote raising the income threshold on the checks.

Under the committee’s plan, $850 checks would be sent out to single tax filers making less than $100,000, heads of household making less than $150,000, and couples filing jointly making less than $200,000. That represents an increase in the income eligibility threshold for the checks from what was proposed by Gov. Janet Mills in her budget plan. Mills last month pitched $850 checks for single filers making under $75,000, although the governor also proposed a threshold of $150,000 for heads of household. 

Progressives were already wary of Mills’ original spending plan and had called for the checks to be more targeted to ensure they are sent to those who actually need them. Such lawmakers and advocates emphasized that targeting the one-time checks would allow for more of the state’s historic $1.3 billion surplus to be spent on long underfunded programs in infrastructure, affordable housing, health care and child care. However, Mills, a Democrat, has indicated that she wants Republican support for the budget and will seek to pass the spending plan by a two-thirds majority, rather than a simple majority, limiting the progressive spending priorities that can make it into the budget. 

Increased income threshold for checks ‘untenable’ 

After AFA’s vote Friday, some legislators expressed renewed frustration that the checks had been expanded to include wealthier people.

“I am very disappointed in the thresholds for the $850 checks,” said Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland), chair of the Taxation Committee. “In what has been put forward, the thresholds are far too high for something I would want to support. I feel like a married couple earning $200,000 a year does not need $1,700 from the state of Maine.” 

The budget reported out by AFA proposes spending a total of $729 million on the one-time checks. Mills had in mid-March put forward spending $682 million on the checks, meaning AFA increased that amount by over $40 million. The checks, an idea first proposed by Republicans, are not favored by Mainers as the best way to use the surplus, according to a recent poll that found people would rather use the money for investments in housing, infrastructure and other unmet needs. 

“We are told year after year, we don’t have enough money for this, we don’t have enough money for that … We finally got a surplus and enough money to make some investments, and we are making some investments in this budget, but we’re not making enough investments in my opinion,” Chipman said, adding that more money for affordable housing is needed in particular.  

Chipman did praise some aspects of the budget plan, saying money for property tax relief, the Earned Income Tax Credit and mental health services are all excellent uses of the state funds. 

However, he added that he was frustrated to see only $12 million for the Special Appropriations table, which is used to fund bills that cost the state money and aren’t included in the budget. Chipman noted there are many bills passed by the legislature that are awaiting funding. But the total money needed for those bills far exceeds the $12 million allocated for the Appropriations table, he said. Some bills awaiting funding include a measure to create a program for new state housing vouchers, a bill to direct revenue from the real estate transfer tax into the Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund to build affordable housing, and legislation to ensure racial equity is considered in data collection and assessment.

Other progressive lawmakers also criticized AFA’s plan, arguing that setting aside so much money for one-time checks for higher-income people isn’t the right decision. 

“The fact that there’s just such a desperate need for housing and for health care and recovery services and all these underfunded programs in the state and we’re considering giving $850 checks to people making … six figures a year is untenable,” said Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland). “I’m not going to vote for that.” 

Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland) added that, “It’s unconscionable to not be focusing on those people in our state who we know lack housing, who lack food, who lack health care, who lack the income to support their families.”

“I think our focus right now with this surplus has to be on supporting those families,” Morales said, citing the one-time nature of the money available to Maine. 

Morales also noted that just yesterday, she received an email from a mother of eight children who is getting evicted. Given the lack of affordable units in Maine, Morales said finding housing for the family will be extremely difficult. Such stories, she said, make it even more crucial that funds from the surplus are used to help families in need and not wealthy people who aren’t struggling.

Other elements of AFA budget plan

Along with the checks, other aspects of AFA’s supplemental budget plan include an additional $60 million to fight contamination by PFAS chemicals, bringing the state’s investment in that area to over $100 million. Further items include an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a reform to damaging pension fund changes made under former Gov. Paul LePage, $20 million to pay for up to two years of community college for certain students, $27 million for a free school lunch program, money to ensure the state fulfills its obligation to fund 55% of local education costs, and investments in health and direct care programs, among other provisions. 

“Maine families, communities and small businesses are looking to the legislature to combat inflation and rising energy costs, environmental threats and other challenges,” said AFA Senate Chair Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland). “With this supplemental budget, the legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee came up with a strong, responsible and bipartisan plan that delivers for our state.”

In her statement, House AFA Chair Teresa Pierce (D-Falmouth) said, “I’m proud that our committee was able to reach a unanimous, bipartisan report on the supplemental budget. Our shared goal was to ensure direct relief will get to Maine people quickly and critical investments are made in Maine families to thrive.” 

Some advocates also praised the budget plan. In an email, Maine Center for Economic Policy president Garrett Martin lauded the expansion of Earned Income Tax Credit and property tax relief provisions in particular. Martin added that under the budget plan, 7,500 additional kids will now have access to health insurance, child care workers will receive better wages and schools will receive the funding they deserve. 

“A fair state budget is vital to lifting up Maine people and communities,” Martin said. “We applaud the Mills administration and the AFA committee for their work to boost incomes for families, expand access to health care, increase access to education, and uphold the state’s commitment to funding our schools and local services.” 

The budget, however, also keeps the state’s “rainy-day fund” at $492 million, the highest in the state’s history, according to a legislative news release. That comes at a time when advocates have argued the state must spend funds on programs to help Mainers recover from the devastating health and financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic rather than keeping such a high amount in the rainy-day fund. 

Dan Neumann contributed reporting to this story. 

Photo: Members of Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) at the State House on Thursday to urge lawmakers to support an equitable budget | Via Maine People’s Alliance

Categories: Beacon tags

Tribal sovereignty, housing, environmental bills among big votes taken in Augusta this week

Fri, 04/15/2022 - 06:28

This story may be updated.

The Maine Legislature voted on a number of important issues this week, ranging from high-profile tribal sovereignty measures to bills related to economic justice, health care, housing and the environment. Here’s a rundown of some of the recent decisions made in Augusta. 

Tribal sovereignty

The legislature this week took up multiple measures designed to reinforce the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki in what has been a multi-year campaign by Indigenous nations in Maine to be treated like all other tribes around the country. 

On Thursday, the House approved a bill that would alter the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. The bill, LD 1626, would change the Settlement Act to create “an enhanced process for tribal-state collaboration and consultation as well as a process for alternative dispute resolution.” Other aspects of the legislation include strengthening tribal communities’ criminal jurisdiction, recognizing the rights of tribes to regulate hunting and fishing on their lands, and affirming the Wabanaki’s right to regulate natural resources and land use on their territory. The vote was 81-55 in favor of the bill. 

Also this week, the legislature approved another tribal sovereignty bill, LD 906. That bill would address the unsafe and deteriorating water system at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation, known as Sipayik, where dangerous levels of toxic chemicals have been found. Along with LD 1626, Gov. Janet Mills has expressed skepticism about the water legislation. But given the bipartisan support LD 906 received in both the House and the Senate, advocates have a chance to overcome a potential veto from the governor. The bill now goes to Mills for consideration. 

Juniper Ridge 

Lawmakers this week sent a bill to Mills designed to close a loophole in Maine law that has allowed Juniper Ridge landfill to become a dumping ground for waste from surrounding states.

As Beacon previously reported, about 90% of the waste sent to a processing facility in Lewiston that ends up in Juniper Ridge is from out of state. The amount of waste going into Juniper Ridge is increasing every year, the coalition noted earlier this year, filling 32% faster than anticipated. A continuation of that would mean additional expansions of the landfill, which environmental advocates have argued would lead to increased pollution.

The bill to address the issue, LD 1639, was approved with strong bipartisan votes in both the House and the Senate. 

Housing

The legislature took action on several housing bills this week. On Thursday, the House passed on a 78-51 vote a bill aimed at reforming zoning laws and cutting red tape to allow for development of affordable units. 

That bill, LD 2003, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), was originally larger in scope. However, it was scaled back last month amid opposition from some groups. While advocates still support the bill and view it as a step forward, they argued the changes made to the measure represent a missed opportunity for a more ambitious effort to address the affordable housing crisis. 

It was a similar story with LD 1673, another affordable housing bill that was scaled back in the face of opposition. That bill cleared final votes in both the House and the Senate this week and was placed on the Appropriations Table for funding consideration. Originally designed to set affordable housing goals in each municipality, the measure was significantly amended to include non-binding goals and reduce the scope of communities covered by such goals. 

PFAS 

The House gave its final approval this week for a bill, LD 2019, that would prohibit a person from distributing a pesticide contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, which have been linked to a wide variety of harmful health impacts. The bill also bans the distribution of pesticides that contain intentionally added PFAS beginning in 2030. 

The measure also adds “any substance or mixture of substances intended to be used as a spray adjuvant” to the definition of pesticide.

The Senate also gave initial approval to the bill this week. The measure still faces a final vote in the chamber. 

In addition, the House this week approved another PFAS-related bill. LD 1911 would authorize the Department of Environmental Protection to “require a person licensed to discharge wastewater to sample the effluent discharged for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and to report the sample data to the department,” among other provisions. The bill was then approved by the Senate on a bipartisan vote. 

Criminal justice 

The Senate this week officially killed a bill that would have established certain motor vehicle-related violations as secondary offenses. The measure, LD 1479, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), sought to make such offenses enforceable only if an officer had detained a driver for the suspected violation of another law.  

Offenses that would have been classified as secondary by the bill include operating a vehicle after suspension for not paying a fine, not registering a vehicle if the registration has been expired for less than 150 days, and hanging an object from the rearview mirror, among other similar violations. 

Supporters of the legislation added that the measure was meant to address discrimination in who is stopped, with myriad lawmakers in the House saying drivers of color are often pulled over more than white drivers. Still, the Senate voted the bill down 27-3, with only Cumberland County Democratic Sens. Ben Chipman, Anne Carney and Heather Sanborn voting for the measure. That result came after the House voted against the bill last week. 

The Senate also took action this week on a bill dealing with the issue of solitary confinement in Maine. The bill, which the House passed to define the practice as confinement in a cell for over 22 hours in a day, was then amended in the Senate this week to simply remove the term solitary confinement from statute in a move that advocates said would obscure how the practice is used in Maine prisons and jails. 

On Thursday, however, the House voted to reject the Senate’s amendment and instead passed its own amendment to the bill, sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), that would require prisons and jails to send a report to the Maine Department of Corrections if a person is held in isolation for more than 22 hours in a day. 

Economic justice

The House and Senate this week passed a bill to direct the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to study the impact on the state of adopting “a corporate income tax system that requires worldwide combined reporting for income tax purposes.” The report on the issue would be due by February 1. 

The measure, LD 428, is an effort to start the process of eventually closing a loophole used by multinational corporations to avoid paying taxes in Maine. It will now go to Mills for consideration. 

The House this week also gave initial approval to a bill designed to improve labor standards on renewable energy projects. The bill, LD 1969, sets standards for pre-apprenticeship training programs by the Maine Apprenticeship Program, including the payment of “meaningful stipends” to participants.

The measure also requires that renewable energy projects of a certain size pay construction workers “the prevailing rate for wages and benefits,” among other stipulations. The bill was passed Wednesday by the House 81-57 and now moves to the Senate. 

Health care 

The Senate gave final approval Monday on a bill to close a loophole that has let insurance companies deny no-copay coverage of birth control. The measure, LD 1954, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook), mandates insurance coverage of all birth control methods approved by the FDA. 

The legislation was passed unanimously in the Senate, sending the bill to Mills for consideration. 

In another unanimous vote in the Senate on Monday, the chamber sent to Mills a bill that would require the Maine Health Data Organization to document the 100 most expensive prescription drugs and the 100 most frequently prescribed drugs each year. LD 1636 also mandates the organization to determine the potential savings from subjecting such prescription drugs to a “referenced rate,” defining that rate as “the lowest cost from official publications of certain Canadian provincial government agencies and the wholesale acquisition cost.”

Climate 

The House gave approval this week to a bill, LD 2018, that would ensure the incorporation of “equity considerations in decision making” at the Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Utilities Commission and other state agencies. 

The measure also requires the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt rules so that “environmental justice populations and frontline communities are provided with fair and equitable access to the department’s decision-making processes.” 

The bill was then passed by the Senate and given final approval by the House. It now returns to the Senate. 

Photo: The Maine State House | Beacon

Categories: Beacon tags

Wins and losses for big environmental bills as session enters final weeks

Fri, 04/08/2022 - 09:02

The legislative session is now in its final scheduled month. Here are some of the decisions lawmakers made this week. 

Juniper Ridge bill

The Senate voted unanimously Thursday in favor of a bill designed to close a loophole in Maine law that has allowed Juniper Ridge landfill in Alton to become a dumping ground for waste from surrounding states. 

Essentially the bill seeks to change statute that has allowed waste coming in from out of state to be classified as Maine waste once it gets to a state-based processing facility.

The measure, LD 1639, sponsored by Sen. Anne Carney (D-Cumberland), was amended by the Senate to push back the implementation of the legislation to February 2023. The bill, which is a major priority of environmental groups and tribes in Maine, now goes to the House.  

Pine Tree amendment voted down

The House on Tuesday failed to pass a bill that would enshrine the right to a clean and healthy environment into the Maine Constitution. The vote on the measure was 77-59 in favor, but the bill failed because it needed a two-thirds margin of support.

That vote came after some Republicans in the chamber made false and misleading claims about the measure, claiming it was tailored to activists and could be used to ban the burning of firewood and curb bike path construction. Bill sponsor Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Lincoln) called such rhetoric “profoundly inaccurate.”  

The bill will be considered by the Senate before the end of the session but is unlikely to be approved by both chambers this year. 

Paid family leave commission  

Both chambers on Tuesday gave initial approval to a bill that would extend the work of a commission tasked with developing a paid family and medical leave system in Maine, with the House giving its final approval on Thursday. 

That commission was established by a bill last year and was originally supposed to suggest legislation for a paid leave system for consideration during the 2022 session but was delayed in that timeline. 

The bill approved Tuesday, LD 1952, seeks to reestablish the commission and require it to submit its recommendations by Nov. 2 for consideration by the next iteration of the legislature, which will be seated following the November 2022 election. 

That move comes as many Mainers have expressed the urgent need for creating a paid leave system in the state, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The measure extending the commission’s timeline now goes to the Senate. 

Child care bill 

A bill to provide funds for the Maine Department of Education to disburse to career and technical education centers “for the purpose of expanding or developing early childhood education programs” has been included in Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, according to a Wednesday news release. 

The bill, LD 1652, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), would also provide salary supplements for child care and early education providers in a bid to address the escalating cracks in Maine’s troubled child care system. 

The measure was passed last week in the Senate and also in the House, where it was approved unanimously. 

“I believe Maine’s example will lead the country, showing other states how to build a world class child care system that works for all,” Fecteau said.

PFAS bills

The House on Thursday approved a bill that would prohibit a person from distributing a pesticide contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, which have been linked to a wide variety of harmful health impacts. The bill also bans the distribution of pesticides that contain intentionally added PFAS beginning in 2030. 

The measure also adds “any substance or mixture of substances intended to be used as a spray adjuvant” to the definition of pesticide.

The bill, LD 2019, passed an initial vote in the House by a 75-61 margin in a mostly partly-line decision that saw Democrats support the bill and Republicans oppose it. It faces additional votes. 

Another PFAS-related bill, LD 2013, passed an initial vote in the Senate on Thursday and a final vote in the House. That bill would establish a fund within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to address PFAS contamination, among other provisions. It now moves to the Appropriations table for funding.

Motor vehicle stops bill voted down

A bill that would establish certain motor vehicle-related violations as secondary offenses failed a vote in the House on Thursday. The measure, LD 1479, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), stated that such offenses would only be enforced if an officer has detained a driver for the suspected violation of another law. 

Offenses that would have been classified as secondary by the bill include operating a vehicle after suspension for not paying a fine, not registering a vehicle if the registration has been expired for less than 150 days, and hanging an object from the rearview mirror, among other similar violations. 

“It defies commonsense that police spend limited resources pulling people over for these small traffic violations,” Morales said.

Supporters of the legislation added that the measure was meant to address discrimination in who is stopped, with myriad lawmakers saying drivers of color are often pulled over more than white drivers.

But after a lengthy debate, a number of Democrats joined with Republicans to vote down the bill, which was defeated 77-60.  

Birth control coverage bill

The Maine House and Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would close a loophole that Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund said in a news release has let insurance companies deny no-copay coverage of birth control, with the House giving its final approval Thursday. 

The measure, LD 1954, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook), mandates insurance coverage of all birth control methods approved by the FDA. 

“This bill is another step forward for Maine patients by allowing patients and providers, not insurance companies, to determine the best birth control method,” said Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund. 

The bill now returns to the Senate.  

Needle exchange bill signed into law

Gov. Janet Mills has signed a measure to allow the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to raise the number of needles that can be handed out by syringe service providers to those affected by substance use disorder. 

The bill, LD 1909, sponsored by Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington), is designed to rescind the state’s current policy of one-for-one exchange, which requires providers to get back a used syringe from a person in order to provide them a clean one. 

“2021 was the deadliest year in Maine’s opioid epidemic,” McDonald said, adding that “expanding access to sterile supplies through syringe service programs will save taxpayer dollars, prevent needless suffering and ultimately save lives.”

Housing bills

The House and Senate passed a bill Tuesday that seeks to clarify the roles and perspectives that must be represented on the board of the Maine State Housing Authority and states the goals of certain governmental agencies must include housing that is affordable for low and moderate income people. The House then gave its final approval for the measure Thursday. 

LD 1961, sponsored by Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec), is part of a group of bills that advocates are pushing to begin to address the state’s affordable housing crisis. The bill now goes back to the Senate. 

The House on Thursday also passed another housing-related bill, LD 1673. Originally designed to set affordable housing goals in each municipality, the measure was significantly amended to include non-binding goals and reduce the scope of communities covered by such goals. The bill will now move to the Senate   

Non disclosure agreement bill

The House on Tuesday and the Senate on Thursday passed in initial votes a bill that would bar an employer from requiring a worker to enter into an agreement that “waives or limits any right to report or discuss discrimination, retaliation or harassment occurring in the workplace or at work related events.” The House then gave its final approval for the bill Thursday. 

The bill also prohibits requiring an employee to sign an agreement that limits their ability provide evidence to a state or federal agency tasked with enforcing employement and discrimination laws, testify in a court case or report conduct to law enforcement. The bill tasks the Maine Department of Labor with enforcing the provisions and allows for workers to receive damages or be re-employed with back pay if they are fired or not hired because they decline to enter into a contract that waives or limits their rights.

The bill, LD 965, sponsored by Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), now goes to the Senate. 

Prescription drug bill

The House and Senate on Tuesday gave initial approval to a bill that would require the Maine Health Data Organization to document the 100 most expensive prescription drugs and the 100 most frequently prescribed drugs each year. The House then gave its final approval to the bill Thursday.

The bill also requires the organization to determine the potential savings from subjecting such prescription drugs to a “referenced rate.” The bill, LD 1636, sponsored by Sen. Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin), states that the referenced rate “must be calculated as the lowest cost from official publications of certain Canadian provincial government agencies and the wholesale acquisition cost.”

The bill now goes back to the Senate.  

Photo: Beacon

Categories: Beacon tags

Here are some of the important bills passed by the Maine Legislature this week

Fri, 04/01/2022 - 07:05

The Maine Legislature continued to move bills through the process this week during session days in Augusta on Tuesday and Thursday.  

Here are some of the important bills that were voted on. 

Solitary confinement bill

A bill, LD 696, that would define what constitutes solitary confinement in Maine’s prison and jails was approved by the House on Tuesday, with Democrats pushing the measure through on a 78-58 vote. Advocates, families and those who have been incarcerated have all decried the use of solitary confinement in Maine, saying it can do long-term damage to those who are isolated for long periods of time. 

“Solitary confinement almost killed my son,” Cape Elizabeth resident Lori Swain told members of the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in February. 

However, despite hours of testimony to the contrary, the Department of Corrections claims Maine doesn’t use solitary confinement, prompting Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) to propose in LD 696 to define the practice as confinement in a cell for over 22 hours in a day. 

Equity in data collection

The House on Thursday gave its final approval to a bill, LD 1610, that would instruct Maine to establish a state data governance program that sets standards for how data is collected and accessed. That came after the Senate passed the bill Tuesday in an initial vote. The measure would also make the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations a partner in the creation of that program to ensure that racial equity is considered in the data. 

The bill is meant to ensure that policymakers have the data needed to support new ideas and more informed decision making. The legislation faces a further vote in the Senate. 

Estate tax

On Thursday, the House and Senate approved a bill that would ensure that 50% of revenue generated from the estate tax, levied on large inheritances, is designated to the Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund. The bill requires that the money be used “for the creation of new housing units, through new construction or adaptive reuse, that are affordable to low-income households.” 

The measure, LD 1704, passed the House on a 73-54 vote Thursday. The vote in the Senate was 19-14 in favor. The bill now faces an additional Senate vote. 

Child care

A bill to provide $100,000 for the Maine Department of Education to disburse to career and technical education centers “for the purpose of expanding or developing early childhood education programs” received final approval in the House on Thursday in a unanimous vote. That came after the Senate passed the bill in an initial vote Thursday. The bill will now return to the Senate.

The bill, LD 1652, would also provide salary supplements for child care and early education providers in a bid to address the escalating cracks in Maine’s troubled child care system. The measure will now face additional votes in each chamber.

In addition, another bill related to child care, LD 1678, was approved by both chambers of the legislature this week. That bill would, among other stipulations, provide a refundable tax credit to child care providers. It will now go to the Senate for a final vote.  

Needle exchange measure

The Senate on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that would rescind a policy known as one-for-one exchange, which requires providers to get back a used syringe from a person in order to provide them a clean one. As Beacon previously reported, the measure — LD 1909, sponsored by Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) — would instead empower the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to determine the number of needles that may be provided. 

The bill is designed to help combat the opioid epidemic, which reached its deadliest level in 2021. During that year, nearly two Mainers a day died from a drug overdose. 

LD 1909 will now go to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk for consideration. 

Naloxone bill

On Thursday, the House passed in an initial vote a bill to increase the availability of intranasal naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal, in community and corrections settings. The measure is another piece of legislation designed to combat Maine’s opioid epidemic. 

The bill, LD 1428, now goes to the Senate for a vote. 

Overtime bill

This week, the House and Senate passed a bill that would require the Department of Labor to conduct an educational campaign focused on businesses and nonprofits regarding employee overtime laws. The measure also mandates that the department submit a report annually about that campaign. 

The bill, LD 607, comes after a measure introduced during the 129th Legislature sought to raise Maine’s overtime threshold — the salary under which all workers are automatically entitled to time-and-a-half pay — from $36,000 to $55,000 by 2022. That bill was defeated in 2020 with the help of some Democrats. 

LD 607 faces an additional vote in the Senate. 

Housing discrimination

The House and Senate this week gave final approval to a bill, LD 1871, to extend the Maine Human Rights Commission pilot program to review and investigate complaints of harassment due to a person’s housing status. That pilot program also allows the commission to investigate “other reports of interference with a person’s access to public accommodations.” 

The measure will now go to Mills’ for consideration. 

Hair discrimination bill

The House and Senate passed on Thursday a bill that would prohibit discrimination in employment and education based on hair texture or style. The bill states that braids, twists and locks are included by the protections under the bill.

The measure, LD 598, was passed by a 21-12 margin in the Senate and passed without a roll call vote in the House. It will now face further votes in each chamber. 

Utility disconnection bill

The House and Senate on Thursday also passed a bill that would require a utility to provide advance notice before it terminates or disconnects a public safety facility’s service. The bill would also mandate that a utility receive authorization for the disconnection from the Public Utilities Commission and Maine Department of Public Safety. 

The measure, LD 1847, now faces an additional vote in the Senate. 

Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau enters the House chamber at the start of the 2022 legislative session. | Ryan Fecteau via Facebook

Categories: Beacon tags

Coalition calls for legislature to pass tribal sovereignty, address housing and health crises

Wed, 03/30/2022 - 07:11

A coalition of more than 60 advocacy groups called Tuesday for Maine lawmakers to pass a series of priorities that would spur a strong recovery from the pandemic and address issues of housing, health care and racial justice while ensuring that data is used to inform equitable policy.

During a press conference outside the State House, the group Vision for an Equitable Maine — which includes Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) — highlighted four issues areas and urged bold action on each of them. 

“Preserving the status quo or tinkering around the edges will not meet the demands of this moment,” said Isreal Mosely of the Maine Children’s Alliance, who facilitated the event. “This is a time to take stock and work toward and invest in real reform.” 

Maulian Dana, ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, spoke about the importance of passing LD 1626. That bill would reinforce Wabanaki tribal sovereignty by altering the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which has left the Wabanaki Nations with less authority over natural resources, gaming, taxation and criminal justice than 570 other federally recognized tribes. 

The measure has strong support from myriad groups, and over 1,500 Mainers testified in favor of the legislation during a public hearing in February. However, the bill as written is currently opposed by Gov. Janet Mills. 

“We’ve seen this real empathy for tribal citizens in Maine and instead of kind of sitting back and … hoping it goes well, we’ve seen Mainers really step up to the plate and show up for the tribes and I really can’t thank you enough for seeing the value in what we’re trying to do with LD 1626,” Dana said of the support the bill has seen. 

The legislation was advanced out of committee earlier this month and will face floor votes this session. Dana urged lawmakers to support the bill, which would simply treat Wabanaki nations like other tribes around the country. 

“LD 1626 seeks to fix what is broken in the tribal-state relationship,” she said.  

Another policy area that must be tackled this session is the state’s affordable housing crisis, said Lado Ladoka of Democracy Maine and the Maine Immigrant Housing Coalition.

The numbers behind Maine’s housing crisis are stark. The state is experiencing a shortage of about 20,000 affordable options and around 25,000 Maine households are on a waitlist for federal Section 8 housing vouchers. In addition, nearly 60% of renters in the state spend half their income on housing. 

“The housing crisis is identified again and again by Mainers across the state as an issue that must be addressed,” Ladoka said. “It is imperative that legislators take action now to shift our policies in order to build toward a future where everyone in Maine can afford to live in a safe and stable place where they can call home.”

In support of that goal, Ladoka urged the legislature to pass LD 2003. Sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), LD 2003 seeks to tackle one aspect of the issue by addressing zoning laws that can make it difficult to build new affordable units. Although that bill was watered down amid opposition from some groups, advocates still believe it would be a step forward if passed. 

Around 50 Vision for an Equitable Maine supporters line up before Tuesday’s event | Beacon

Ladoka also encouraged lawmakers to pass LD 1673, an additional bill designed to spur increased affordable housing. 

Another speaker at the event was Crystal Cron, executive director of the group Presente Maine, who spoke about the need to pass a bill that would ensure all low-income Mainers can access MaineCare benefits regardless of their immigration status.

Cron urged the passage of LD 718, which would reinstate coverage that was stripped by former Gov. Paul LePage in 2011. Passing the bill is massively important for immigrant populations in Maine, Cron said. She pointed out that during the pandemic, many immigrants worked frontline jobs and were more exposed to COVID-19, contributing to large racial disparities in who was impacted by the virus. 

The lack of ability to access health care also impacts immigrants’ general well-being, Cron added. 

“Even when they have raked thousands of crates of blueberries, shucked hundreds of thousands of pounds of lobster, harvested broccoli, packed potatoes, washed our dishes, cooked our meals, built our houses and cleaned our toilets, immigrants cannot afford to go to a simple checkup at the doctor,” she said. “They don’t get screened for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.” 

Cron said lawmakers and Mills can right this wrong by including health care for low-income adult immigrants in this year’s budget. She said that would build on progress made in last year’s budget, which included funding to extend health benefits to pregnant people and kids under 21 regardless of immigration status. 

“Taking this action will ensure that Maine kids have healthy parents, families, and communities,” Cron said. 

Along with those policy initiatives, it’s essential that the state have good data that can inform equitable legislation, said Joby Thoyalil of the Maine Coalition on Racial Equity, who also spoke at Tuesday’s event. That’s why Vision for an Equitable Maine is supporting LD 1610, which Thoyalil said would instruct Maine to establish a state data governance program that sets standards for how data is collected and accessed. The measure would also make the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations a partner in the creation of that program to “ensure racial equity is considered into every aspect of the data life cycle.” 

LD 1610 passed an initial vote in the House last week and was approved by the Senate on Tuesday. It will face additional votes in each chamber.   

“Progress is often marked by the construction of new infrastructure that facilitates new ideas and better decision-making,” Thoyalil said. “This includes the development of data infrastructure, and LD 1610 is a thoughtful and important first step in that development.”  

Top photo: Isreal Mosely speaks at Tuesday’s press conference | Beacon 

Categories: Beacon tags