After months of advocacy and negotiations, the first regular session of the 129th Legislature has come to a close. Together, we worked to provide data and promote policies that will help all Maine children reach their full potential. Check out the highlights of the session below!
Promoting Early Care and Education Programs that Give Young Children a Strong Start
The Children’s Caucus continued this session, co-chaired this time by Sen. Rebecca Millett and Rep. Sawin Millett, giving lawmakers an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of issues in early childhood, through guest speakers who are experts in early childhood areas of health and well-being. Through the caucus, legislators can acquire the best data and information to inform their consideration of early childhood bills that come before them in the Legislature.
Through the Right From the Start coalition, we worked closely and intently on several bills relating to early childhood care and education. One of our most significant accomplishments in this area was the passage of legislation which will create a statewide voluntary early childhood mental health consultation program. Through this work, educators and providers can get support to help children with challenging behaviors develop the skills they need to manage their feelings and behaviors in better ways, leading to their ability to remain in the classroom, and resulting in improved long-term academic and professional outcomes. A bill to convene a stakeholder group to determine the state’s capacity to provide early and period screening, diagnostic and treatment services (EPSDT) also passed.
This session also saw the reinstatement and convening of the Children’s Cabinet – a good sign of a desire by leadership for collaboration and a cross-systems approach to policy and practice affecting children in our state. This body was further strengthened by the passage of legislation implementing a special early childhood advisory council to the Cabinet.
Towards a Future of Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids
One of the hallmarks of this new administration and Legislature was the immediate implementation of the voter-approved expansion of MaineCare, which will provide at least 70,000 more low-income Mainers with critical access to healthcare. Another “win” in healthcare included the passage of LD 1, which enshrines in state statute many of the protections currently provided through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This will ensure that even if the ACA is undermined federally, Mainers will be guaranteed those protections here.
This session saw the passage of three bills addressing the danger posed to child exposure to lead, through the strengthening of the Lead Poisoning Control Act, a bill to expand access to lead screenings at well-child visits for 1- and 2-year-olds, and legislation requiring public schools to test drinking water regularly for levels of lead.
We worked successfully to pass legislation to improve oral health – an important indicator for overall health – and dental care for Maine children.
Maine also became the 17th state to ban the practice of “conversion therapy,” prohibiting mental health professionals and spiritual and family therapists from engaging in the practice. Through the implementation of this legislation, we eliminate this harmful practice, and look instead to provide meaningful support to our LGBTQ youth.
Possibly one of the most hotly debated issues this session was around the bill proposing the removal of the religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccines, making the shots mandatory for all who attend school in Maine. With the highest number of pertussis cases in the nation, and with an increasing number of parents opting out of vaccinating their children, physicians and public health officials pushed for passage of this law, warning that a growing number of unvaccinated children compromises herd immunity, which is especially important for children who are medically fragile or too young to be vaccinated. Maine now joins West Virginia, Mississippi, California and New York in requiring all school-age children be vaccinated, unless they have a medical exemption.
It was a good session in terms of addressing the critical issue of food insecurity for Maine children. With 1 in 5 kids in Maine currently facing food insecurity, the collective passage of these four childhood hunger laws will allow more Maine kids to grow up healthy and hunger-free, by removing the various barriers to access to food they have faced in schools.
After the deaths of two young girls last year and an emergency session to bring forward child welfare reform legislation, this session saw the advancement of many additional bills designed to shore up the child protective system and to support families in crisis. Some bills that made it through included: increasing funding to strengthen the Child Welfare Ombudsman program; creating a more reasonable process for certification of foster homes to increase their numbers; continuation of MaineCare coverage for access to mental health and substance abuse treatment to parents working to rehabilitate and reunify with children in state custody; and significantly, legislation to establish caseload limits for child protective caseworkers, to ensure they have the time and resources to carefully assess and meaningfully work with families in their care.
Helping Families Achieve Economic Security
After several years and multiple renditions, the bipartisan LIFT and STEP bills gained unanimous passage this session. Through these two important pieces of legislation, Maine can take real steps to help families in poverty meet their basic needs and ensure economic opportunities for those families once they are stabilized and able to take advantage of them.
Maine also became the first state to guarantee paid sick time to cover more than just illness, so an employee won’t have to choose between caring for themselves or a family member and working to provide for their families. While there are exemptions for businesses with fewer than 10 employees, this law is estimated to cover 85% of Maine workers.
And in an important leverage of one of the most effective anti-poverty tools, the Maine Work Tax Credit will expand the state Earned Income Tax Credit, putting more money back into the pockets of hard-working Mainers.
With a new administration and Legislature, this session saw a significant shift in policy. Many important bills that failed in previous sessions found passage and even funding this year. Yet in certain areas – particularly gun safety – we didn’t make progress where we had hoped to. And there were far too many good pieces of legislation that found their way to the Appropriations table, only to die there for lack of funding. Similarly, while the proposed Governor’s budget included important investments and passed without partisan gridlock as in years past, it fell short of providing for some important items, including $5 million that was eventually cut from it, earmarked for preschool expansion.
It has become clear to us all advocating at the state house for our initiatives and priorities, that without a bigger “pie,” we cannot hope to fund all the critical programs and services Maine families rely on to ensure they can thrive. While we cannot build better systems for Maine children and youth on the backs of property taxpayers, we see the need to address ways to increase revenue to fund those important programs that support our next generation of Mainers. Their success is critical to our collective future economic success, and that must be better reflected in the laws we pass and in the funding we allocate.
For now, MCA will continue collecting and compiling data to inform our decision-making, collaborate and leverage our collective power with partners and allies, and advocate with administrators and lawmakers to ensure that next session we will do even more, and go even further, to ensure we are creating policies and implementing best practices that will allow children, youth, and families in Maine to reach their full potential.
Thank you for your support this session, and always.
We hope you’ll join us in raising our voices for kids next session, too!