Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland, at the statehouse in Augusta in 2017. Credit: Micky Bedell / BDN

A newly formed Maine commission is advising Gov. Janet Mills to make “specific interventions” to address racial disparities in the state, including kicking off a state racial reconciliation process that would include public hearings in all 16 counties.

The group, which includes advocates, policy researchers and lawmakers, made five specific requests to the Democratic government in a Thursday letter that came amid a coronavirus pandemic that has especially hit communities of color in Maine and after rallies against systemic racism and police brutality.

The commission’s chair, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, has played a driving role at moments during civil rights demonstrations in Portland the last few weeks, demanding that state politicians take legislative action to address racial disparities, such as black Mainers becoming infected by the coronavirus at more than 10 times the rate of their white counterparts.

“The events of recent weeks reaffirm the importance of this commission,” Ross said in a statement.

The group, which was formed by the Democratic-led Legislature in 2019, is also recommending allocating emergency funding from the federal CARES Act to black, indigenous and other people of color as well as direct state agencies to track and publish more data sorted by race, ethnicity and tribal affiliation.

It also recommends that Mills support a sweeping and historic set of tribal sovereignty recommendations that would make major changes to a 1980 settlement with the state that boxed Maine tribes out of sovereignty provisions enjoyed by other U.S. tribes, including those around gaming, natural resources and taxation.

Mills reached a deal in February allowing the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy tribe to prosecute certain domestic violence crimes on on tribal land under the federal Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. The governor, however, split with Democrats in the Legislature to criticize the recommendations for their “sweeping nature” in a February letter

Work on the issue was set aside when the Legislature abruptly adjourned in March due to the coronavirus. In a statement, Maulian Dana, the tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation and a member of the racial justice commission, said the panel is “one way we can ensure this historic moment becomes a sustained and thoughtful set of changes and structural reforms.”

Advocates have pushed state officials since late April to establish a task force to address racial disparities among coronavirus infections in Maine. Those talks included a number of demands, including an audit of the state’s contact tracing efforts among immigrant communities and disaggregating data between immigrants and black descendants of enslaved Africans. 

That disparity has steadily grown more pronounced. As of Thursday, black Mainers comprise 27 percent of coronavirus cases in which racial data is recorded, while they comprise only 1.6 percent of the population in one of the nation’s whitest states.

Mills, a Democrat, received more pressure in late May after New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, announced that the neighboring state would establish an equity response team to examine racial disparities during the pandemic. 

A spokesperson for Gov. Mills said the administration “looks forward to reviewing” the recommendations, calling the commission’s letter “a welcome beginning to the constructive dialogue that Maine must have to more fully understand the disparities that exist in our state.”