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Cate Blackford is the public policy director at the Maine People’s Alliance.
Maine’s Legislature is back this week, for the second year of the 130th session. It’s also the second year when lawmakers are operating under the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Things probably aren’t ever going to go back to how they were. But when our world is shaken, it creates an opportunity to create something better.
We have shown our best over the past two years, being generous, making sacrifices when we needed to, and always remembering that no matter who our neighbors are, they deserve the same care and consideration we’d want for ourselves. At the same time, our state and local governments worked to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic for millions of people, putting policies in place like the expanded child tax credit that lay the groundwork for a future where we can all thrive.
Now, some people — including Republicans, lobbyists for big business like the Chamber of Commerce and others who benefit from the unfettered market system that failed us during the pandemic — would like us to forget our actions during the pandemic and roll back the gains we’ve made.
If they stick to their past actions and what we know about their 2022 platform, we know they’ll try to divide us against one another on “culture war” issues like LGBTQ, abortion and workers’ rights, and convince us that investing in our communities will somehow hurt those communities.
They want us to fear change. But we can do better than that — we can think about opportunity instead. That’s the challenge legislators are facing this session, as they consider policies that could dramatically improve the lives and prospects of all Mainers.
Maine is expected to take in $822 million more during the 2022 and 2023 budget years than originally projected. This reflects the fact that during the pandemic, the wealthiest Mainers have seen their income nearly double. This surplus is an opportunity to both address long-unmet needs and invest in a more equitable, sustainable future.
With this in mind, the Legislature will be working to create a broad, inclusive and effective paid family and medical leave program. This paid leave enables people from all walks of life (not just the 20 percent of private sector workers, and 8 percent of low-wage workers who had access to paid family leave in 2020) to take time to take care of themselves or a loved one, without going into debt, spending down emergency savings or leaving their job.
A strong paid family and medical leave program will cover events that happen to all of us, including a new child, or caring for your own health or that of a loved one. It’s a good thing for new parents, women in the workforce and long-term caregivers. It reduces wealth and employment disparities between white people and other racial groups, and is good for small businesses and the economy.
Lawmakers will also consider several housing bills — LD 473, 1656 and 1673 — to make finding a decent place to live possible for the many Mainers who are being priced out. These include changes to zoning laws and plans to add to Maine’s affordable housing stock with safer, more energy efficient buildings. Communities all over Maine are changing, and growing. Let’s meet that head on and build the vibrant cities and towns Maine deserves.
This session our Legislature must also correct a long-term wrong, and pass LD 1626. The tribes in Maine, who lived in this region for thousands of years before European colonizers arrived, are still fighting for their rights as sovereign nations to be recognized. Currently, Wabanaki people do not enjoy the same rights, privileges, powers and immunities as the other 570 federally recognized tribes in 49 other states. This must be addressed. It’s the only right thing to do.
This winter and spring, the Legislature will consider more than 350 bills. In addition to the above, they include bills to improve our health care (LD 718), environment (LD 1639) and child care systems (LD 1652), protect and treat people with substance use disorder (LD 1862) and invest in addressing our state’s opioid crisis (LD 1722), and so much more.
The bottom line is, the pandemic has shown us who we are when we’re at our best. Let’s build on that, and create policies that make our state the place all we deserve.