2021 started with our country, and our government, facing some significant challenges and issues of importance: the spread and increase in cases of COVID-19, rioting at the Capitol, and unprecedented attention being called to address issues of systemic racism and inequality. On January 20th, President Biden was inaugurated and control of the Senate agenda shifted as two new Democratic Senators from Georgia were seated. As a former Hill staffer who started work at the beginning of 2009, amidst the financial crisis and transition to the Obama administration, I saw firsthand how quickly the policy landscape can shift as leadership changes hands. In my experience, the shifts currently taking place are even more complex and significant than what we saw then.
Against this backdrop, the Island Institute is taking a close look at emerging opportunities and our federal policy strategy. There will be more to come on this in the next few months as we adjust to the new federal landscape. In the meantime, we wanted to provide an update on statewide legislative priorities and where we see our role in supporting these efforts.
2021 Maine Legislative Session
Here in Maine, the 2021 legislative session is starting up. About 1/3 of the 75 Senators and Representatives who represent coastal communities are new this year. Committee orientations are happening and the first set of hearings on bills are coming up quickly.
The ability to participate remotely in Legislative hearings is potentially a game changer for those who can’t easily get to Augusta. In this session, we are looking forward to supporting the participation of our community leaders in the process.
As we look at the upcoming session, there are a handful of policy issues shaping our focus: civic engagement in a socially distance environment; broadband infrastructure enhancement; climate change actions; and concerns relating to small, remote communities.
Here is a more detailed look at how the Island Institute is approaching this coming legislative session:
Civic Engagement in Socially Distanced Environment
COVID-19 changed how public bodies operate, the number of people participating in the process, and how people engage with their government. In the 2020 Presidential election, 828,000 Mainers voted. With 76.3% of eligible voters casting their ballots, Maine’s voter participation ranked 3rd nationally, behind Minnesota (80%) and Colorado (76.4%). 61% of Mainers voted absentee, up from 32% in 2016 and 25% in 2012.
Government business is being conducted over video conferencing platforms, webinars, and in other virtual spaces. Remote meetings require different technology and different facilitation skills from in-person meetings. Early on in the pandemic, the Maine Islands Coalition heard from Vinalhaven Town Manager Andy Dorr that over 1,000 people attended a select board meeting that was held online. To help community leaders navigate this environment, the Greater Portland Council of Governments put together a collection of lessons from the field about inclusive and accessible virtual engagement practices.
The Maine Municipal Association recently conducted a survey of town leaders about virtual meetings and remote participation. This survey found that only 7% of Maine’s communities were ready for remote meetings at the beginning of the pandemic, while 70% were not ready. After eight months of remote meetings, almost 60% said that they would like to be able to continue using remote meetings as a permanent option or tool for conducting business.
When it comes to statewide policy conversations, the Economic Recovery Committee and the Maine Climate Council both worked through complicated, weighty material in a virtual environment, engaging stakeholders in new and different ways. Meetings that would have attracted hundreds of people to Augusta had people tuning in from home. From participation and engagement to strategies to influence the outcome of discussions, the virtual nature of the proceedings changed the landscape for all parties involved.
For Island Institute staff, the loss of face-to-face connections is hard. Our business is deeply personal and relationships matter—a lot. One upside of the increase in remote meetings, though, is that staff attend and participate in multiple community meetings in the same day without spending hours on the road or ferries.
Improving Broadband Access Statewide
Broadband’s importance was highlighted in the Economic Recovery Committee report. The July 2020 bond vote showed significant public support for enhancing broadband access, with 75% of voters or 230,000 individuals supporting the $15 million broadband bond. We are excited to see continued attention being paid to broadband, particularly by both the potential for additional bond funds and Governor Mills’ recent request for additional capacity to help ensure public money is used as effectively as possible. Each of these is important in its own right, and together, they represent the key components for solving our digital divide quickly.
We look forward to continuing to work with the Maine Broadband Coalition and other partners on these priorities in the months ahead.
Climate Change Action Plans
The Maine Won’t Wait climate action plan lays out a set of strategies and a pathway to implementation—a plan that our state will use to address climate change. The Island Institute team spent a fair bit of time in 2020 working with the Maine Climate Council to help develop this plan. Our take on the action plan is here.
For this legislative session, we anticipate bringing an equity lens to these conversations and also a focus on how marine businesses are adapting to the impacts of climate change while reducing their CO2 emissions and how this work could lead to a new soundtrack for the working waterfront.
A note about climate change and impacts on the working waterfront wouldn’t be complete without a reference to sea level rise. We are excited that the action plan sets sea level rise planning targets. Something worth paying attention to is a recent report created for the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF) which estimates the huge cost to residents and businesses if anticipated increases in sea level rise and storm surge are not addressed. According to the estimate, ignoring sea level rise will cost an estimated $17 billion and 21,000 jobs over the next 30 years.
Concerns Regarding Remote Communities
We remain broadly concerned about how the most remote and smallest communities will weather the pandemic. We know small communities face significant issues in the months ahead—from municipal revenue shortfalls and supporting the state’s vaccine distribution efforts, to challenges to the transportation infrastructure necessary to move people, goods, and packages to and from these communities. At the Island Institute, we try to lend a hand where possible, and our work in Augusta is no different.
Transportation access to these communities has been on our minds a lot lately—from this discussion with Monhegan Boat Lines about the very real operational costs and challenges to running a ferry business to hosting a series of meetings with Maine’s ferry operators. The first remote hearing we are participating in this year, on January 26th, is a transportation issue—LD 43, “An Act to Require the Department of Transportation to Provide Ferry Service to Frenchboro.” Currently, Frenchboro is the only island served by the Maine State Ferry Service (MSFS) where the ferry service has the option to not provide service. Service to other islands is required by statute, and this bill adds Frenchboro to the list of islands that the MSFS serves without caveats. It is a small but important change.
We’ll Keep You Updated
As the Maine legislative session progresses, we will keep you up to date on our state-level policy-related activities as well as our still-evolving action plans in various federal policy arenas. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or would like to be involved in this work.
Nick Battista is the senior policy officer at the Island Institute.