Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis speaks at a 2016 news conference on Indian Island. Maine tribes won a historic victory when a legislative panel endorsed a massive sovereignty expansion, but the path forward in the Legislature is unclear. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Tribes won a historic victory on Thursday when a Maine legislative panel endorsed a sweeping sovereignty effort, but it could be a hollow one with lawmakers squabbling over the terms of a return to Augusta and looming special-interest opposition.

The proposal began with a 2019 effort by Gov. Janet Mills to repair Maine’s fraught relationship with tribes and morphed into a massive effort including 22 task force recommendations that would overhaul a 1980 federal land-claims settlement. The process was marked by difficult negotiations between the Democratic governor and often-frustrated tribes.

On Thursday, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee endorsed the package while splitting it into three different bills as a way to make the issues more palatable for lawmakers. They include one bill allowing tribes to conduct gaming on their lands; one on taxation, land acquisition and criminal jurisdiction; and a third touching on fishing, hunting and other rights.

It represented the largest expansion of tribal rights endorsed by a committee of the Maine Legislature since the Maine Indian Land Claim Settlement Act four decades ago, which treats them more like municipalities than sovereigns. Legislators have particularly opposed giving tribes the right to operate casinos. Voters rejected one such plan by a 2-to-1 margin in 2003.

Splitting the package into parts makes it more likely for some of the effort to survive, but the bill giving tribes sole control of gaming on their land will face heavy opposition. It is also unclear whether or not the Legislature will reconvene in 2020 as majority Democrats and minority Republicans fight over the scope of a special session that is looking increasingly unlikely.

All three of the bills passed the judiciary panel in 6-1 votes on Thursday. One Democrat was opposed and other members were absent and can cast votes later. The Mills administration and the office of Attorney General Aaron Frey, a Democrat, indicated concerns that the package was too sweeping in February.

The original bill went through two all-day public hearings, where it faced opposition from gaming, energy and textile interests, among others. Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said he had initially approached that work with skepticism, but was hopeful it would lead to a better state-tribal relationship despite uncertainty.

“My hope is this conversation continues through the legislative process [and] we get real, meaningful change that we can hang a poster of success for,” he said.

The gaming bill likely faces a hard road to passage. Bills to restore gaming rights have either died on adjournment, been voted down or vetoed since 1993. Casinos in Oxford and Penobscot Counties have lobbied heavily against those efforts and are likely to blitz the bill if the Legislature returns in 2020 to take it up.

The second bill would exempt the tribes from sales and income tax earned on tribal lands, and also would give the tribes exclusive criminal jurisdiction over more misdemeanors and felonies punishable by up to five years in prison committed on tribal lands. The state would retain jurisdiction over juvenile crimes.

The bill would also codify the tribes’ expanded criminal jurisdiction rights in the 1980 Implementing Act, meaning it could not be changed without tribal consent. Representatives from the offices of Mills and Frey said they were supportive of those rights being included in the Implementing Act — but preferred the tax changes be made in state law.

“I think it’s right to be concerned about such sweeping kinds of changes, and do it in a way that is very rushed and puts them in a place where they can’t be easily corrected,” said Assistant Attorney General Chris Taub.

Taub also expressed concerns with the third omnibus bill, which contained remaining provisions of the original proposed law. He said language referencing 18th-century treaties could cause problems because the relationship between the state and the tribes is governed by law and not treaties. The tribes disagree and say they still have rights under those treaties.