Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians speaks at the Bangor Daily News office in this January 2020 file photo. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Tribes are reviving a push to overhaul their relationships with the state, but they lost champions in the election and the complicated effort may face obstacles in a skeptical Gov. Janet Mills and special-interest opponents.

A historic vote came in August when the Legislature’s judiciary panel backed three bills meant to put tribes in Maine on par with other federally recognized tribes in the U.S. by altering a 40-year-old law enshrining a historic land-claims settlement. But the coronavirus pandemic stopped the Legislature’s work and bills left were formally declared dead on Monday.

The complex issue of sovereignty would be revived in what promises to be one of the more high-stakes legislative sessions in state history in early 2021. Lawmakers will be facing an estimated $1.4 billion shortfall over the next three years. Racial disparities around the coronavirus, health and incarceration are also likely to drive policy conversations.

The sovereignty effort is pockmarked by opposition from interest groups. For example, allowing tribes more gaming rights faces traditional opposition from established casinos. Disagreements with Mills about the scope of the efforts and some changes to state law still remain. Tribal sovereignty does not fall neatly along party lines, although Democratic leaders say it is a top priority next session and Republicans look to be more opposed.

The original legislation was subjected to several days of public hearings and workshops after a task force put forward 22 recommendations touching on giving tribes more control over policy areas from taxation to fishing rights. Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians said reeducation may slow down efforts but the work was too important to give up.

“It was never our intent that legislation sit on the shelf and collect dust,” she said.

A new Legislature could present new challenges. Lawmakers are already discussing among themselves who will land on what committees. A co-chair of the judiciary panel, Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, was ousted in the 2020 election. Rep. John DeVeau of Caribou, one of the Republican champions of the sovereignty effort, was beaten in a primary.

An omnibus bill concerning tribal sovereignty was ultimately split into three separate proposals last session. Each was approved by the committee with eight votes, while two Democrats — Reps. Barbara Cardone of Bangor, and Chris Babbidge of Kennebunk — either opposing them or backing different versions. Three other Republicans on the committee did not vote.

Both Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, the likely incoming House speaker, said they would support restarting sovereignty conversations. Jackson said those bills were “a big part” of trying to bring the Legislature back for a special session. Fecteau said the tribes would have his “full support.”

They will likely find themselves at odds with Mills. The Democrat has made efforts to repair the state’s rocky relationship with the tribes, including banning Native American public school mascots, adopting Indigenous Peoples Day and tightening water quality standards. But she surprised proponents by criticizing the “sweeping” nature of the original bill in February.

Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office had concerns in August about codifying taxation changes in the 1980 Implementing Act, since future changes would also need the consent of tribes. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Taub also disagreed with one bill referencing an 18th-century treaty because the state views the relationship between the state and tribes as being bound by law and not the centuries-old agreement.

Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said the governor plans to work with the tribes next session on issues like the pandemic, economic development, education and wildlife management. She said those issues are “difficult” but the state is “committed to productive, good-faith discussions.”

It is still unclear who will bring the legislation forward or its ultimate form. Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said he was disappointed some of the effort’s supporters would not be returning, but was also encouraged by support from Democratic leaders and said it was important the bid not become partisan.

“We’ve had decades of Democratic-controlled Houses in Augusta and we’re still where we are,” he said. “We have to make this about what’s good for Maine.”

It is harder to say how Republicans feel about the subject. House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said in a statement she was looking forward to working with stakeholders and was aware of concerns from the Mills administration and members of the judiciary panel.

DeVeau said he felt like an outlier among Republicans in supporting the sovereignty bills last session. He noted Dillingham’s constituents include the Oxford Casino, which has reliably opposed efforts to expand tribal gaming in the past.

“My thing was, we have to follow the treaties written by our government,” he said. “We have to make concessions and look at what is fair.”