Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at the signing ceremony to establish Indigenous Peoples' Day at the State House in Augusta in this April 26, 2019, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The task force dedicated to proposing revisions to state law governing Maine’s indigenous people debuted a broad set of changes Tuesday, but the issue of gambling is already looming as a potential roadblock to those changes staying together as one bill.

The Maine Indian Claims Task Force released a final report outlining changes it says should be made to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Implementing Act, which has caused friction between the tribes and the state of Maine for decades since it was passed in 1980.

The hope of the task force was to put those issues into an omnibus bill, with the idea that doing so would make it harder for opponents of individual issues to pick elements apart as Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, aims to improve Maine’s fraught relations with tribes. A Mills spokesperson said the governor has not yet reviewed the proposals.

The issue of expanding the gambling rights of tribes, which have been previously denied by voters and the Legislature, sprang up quickly, with some members of the Legislature’s judiciary panel worrying that keeping the issue in would lead to the defeat of the broader bill.

Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, who co-chairs both the committee and the task force, called it the “800-pound gorilla in the room.” Officials in Bangor and Oxford — the only two municipalities with casinos — as well as the area chambers of commerce typically resisted prior efforts to expand gambling for tribes, saying such measures could erode those businesses.

Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, said after the presentation she shares those concerns, equating the fallout of the casinos being impacted to what happened with the state’s paper mills. But she also acknowledged those concerns were “theoretical” at this point.

“There are so many other issues in here,” Cardone said. “I don’t want to see any single issue tank the other good issues.”

Other members felt splitting the issues would defeat the underlying goal of the task force’s recommendations — to recognize the tribes as independent tribal governments and less like municipalities and to treat those tribes the same.

“We’re having doubts about if [tribes] having a casino is an issue. It’s not an issue to me,” said Rep. John DeVeau, R-Caribou. “What is an issue is that they haven’t been treated fairly.”

In addition to expanded gambling, the task force recommends the state recognize federal law on tribal rights on fishing and hunting and the right to regulate natural resources on federally recognized tribal lands.

Tribes would regain rights to pass and enforce their own laws, acquire trust land under federal law, to tax their members and businesses on tribal land and to concurrently tax nonmembers on tribal lands with the state. The task force also recommends the state integrate an alternative dispute mechanism into the law as a way to avoid future litigation and to establish better communications with the tribes.

Tribal leaders were cautiously optimistic about the recommendations. Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said the document was “not perfect” but could serve as a foundation to build on, while. Passamaquoddy Tribe Chief William Nicholas at Indian Township said anything that comes out of the report would be a step towards getting “our life back.”

But the situation is different for each tribe. Aroostook Band of Micmacs Chief Edward Peter Paul noted the tribe is subject to a different state law that brought his tribe under state law — an agreement the tribe never ratified. The law also treats the Houlton Band of Maliseet differently than the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy.

“We didn’t have a part of it,” Paul said. “There was no financial benefit at all.”