Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation speaks at the Bangor Daily News office on Jan. 30. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The fate of a complicated tribal sovereignty proposal looked grim on Friday, when frustrated tribal leaders reported only scant agreement with Maine Gov. Janet Mills on the measure and no guarantee lawmakers will return in 2020 to vote on it.

The effort to update the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act began in 2019 after a push from the newly elected Democratic governor to repair the state’s strained relationship with tribes who feel that the 1980 agreement settling a massive land claim has essentially reduced their status to that of municipalities, compared to other U.S. tribes that have wider latitude.

Months of work on a state task force led to a bill introduced in February encompassing 22 policy recommendations on disparate subjects, including taxation, fishing and hunting, natural resources, gambling and criminal jurisdiction. But the Mills administration and tribes are only discussing two of those subject areas now and agreement on them does not appear imminent.

The Maine Legislature put work on the massive proposal and all other bills largely on hold when the coronavirus pandemic led leaders to adjourn in mid-March. Since then, Democrats and minority Republicans have squabbled over the terms of a special legislative session.

Chiefs were surprised when the governor criticized the sovereignty package as being too sweeping in February, though negotiations between the governor’s office, the office of Attorney General Aaron Frey and the tribes have restarted over the past week or so. Mills issued a letter on Friday signaling hope that more consensus could be found over the next week.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis asked the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee to send the bill to the Legislature in its current form despite the uncertain environment, though the committee agreed to wait another six days to meet again to hear a report on the progress of negotiations.

Francis said the Mills administration has offered a compromise on just two areas of the bill — taxation and criminal jurisdiction. The latter is most thorny. The tribes want the authority to prosecute non-capital crimes on all of their land, while the state wants to limit that power to reservations and not trust lands the tribes hold away from their reservations.

“We understand compromise and all those things, but we can’t compromise further who we are as a people, who we are as a government and continue to submit to state regulation around sovereign governmental activities,” Francis said.

The onset of the pandemic left the Mills administration with less time to work on the measure, said Linda Pistner, the governor’s deputy counsel. She said there are no particular impasses on the two subjects, but there are “issues that are going to be difficult.”

After Pistner suggested a graduated approach that would allow tribes to control more prosecutions over time, Passamaquoddy Tribe lawyer Corey Hinton spoke up to say that was the first time he heard the suggestion, which he said was contrary to related federal law. He said the administration’s tactics amounted to delays and said the tribe is “not here for breadcrumbs.”

Many on the judiciary panel stressed the urgency of moving the measure forward on Friday, but the path forward would be unclear. Even if the Legislature reconvened this year, a bill with so many moving parts would be difficult to negotiate and redraft quickly and a smattering of interests — particularly in the gaming, textile and forest products industries — oppose parts of it.

“We’ve had 200 years to try to get this right,” said Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, referring to the state’s bicentennial this year. “I don’t think we can keep asking the tribes as co-equals to come and negotiate against themselves.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...