A proposed bill in the Maine Legislature would require the state begin collecting consistent demographic data that lawmakers can use to inform their decisions, building off last session’s racial impact statement legislation.
“As legislators, we know how important data are when it comes to informing our decision-making,” Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) told lawmakers last month. “And we all know how difficult and frustrating it can be when the data we need to make the best decisions possible are not available to us.”
Talbot Ross’ bill, LD 1610, would help update Maine’s standards for data collection by creating a “data governance program,” something advocates of the bill say is long overdue.
The program would establish data project priorities and establish procedures that “ensure best data quality, alignment, and availability across systems.” Lawmakers could then use this data to better understand Maine’s shifting demographics and how decisions will or have impacted underrepresented communities.
“If racial impact statements are going to fulfill their potential as a tool for policymakers, we need data to inform the analysis,” Talbot Ross told the State and Local Government Committee. “We need a fuller, more accurate picture of the people of Maine and their experiences.”
The program would also create ways for the data to be shared publicly, something proponents of the legislation praised.
“Having wider access to the data, I think, is just a good thing in general,” said James Myall, a policy analyst for Maine Center for Economic Policy, in an interview.
Myall said many people like himself who analyze data on a daily basis are limited to widely available federal information, such as data put out by the Census Bureau, which does not always tell the full story because it’s based on large surveys.
“That means for smaller populations in a state like Maine, it can be hard to find data that’s accurate. Especially for the smaller sub populations, there’s a lot of potential error in there that can draw a decent size margin of error,” Myall said. “So in some cases, having better access to state administrative data would help to solve that.”
The bill was given an ought to pass recommendation along party lines 6-4 by the State and Local Government committee and will go to the House floor for a full vote.
While no Republicans explained their vote during the meeting on March 2, during the bill’s first hearing in February, some GOP members expressed skepticism that it was necessary to put this program in law.
Some lawmakers also worried about privacy issues, and Talbot Ross told her colleagues that privacy laws would be followed. No one testified against the bill, although two people testified that they were neither for nor against.
Standardizing data shared between governmental departments could make for interesting comparisons, Myall said. For example, maybe the bill would allow researchers to understand whether people who are receiving MaineCare have different school graduation rates.
“It could really improve our understanding of how different programs intersect with each other and interact with each other,” Myall said.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said the bill is “truly the next step in moving our state forward” during a State and Local Government Committee work session on March 2.
“We cannot begin to address systemic, institutional racism within our state if we cannot see how our laws and policies either perpetuate or interrupt systemic racism,” Bellows told the committee.
Talbot Ross echoed that sentiment, saying “achieving equity requires intentional action informed by accurate research and analysis.”
“LD 1610 will help us break down the silos of state government to ensure we are collecting, sharing and using data in order to make the best possible policies for the people of Maine.”