Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Troy R. Bennett | BDN Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Negotiations over a stalled tribal sovereignty measure took a step forward on Wednesday as Gov. Janet Mills prepared to outline concessions to tribes, although there was no sign of a wide agreement between the sides.

The changes are expected to alter a bill that now focuses on giving Maine tribes more authority over criminal justice matters on their land by expanding it to also focus on taxation, gaming and a new tribal-state consultation process on state decisions that would affect tribes.

Tribal rights have been the subject of some of the most complicated policy fights in state history. Mills took office with the goal of improving tribal-state relations, but the Democrat has been largely skeptical of the push and reticent to give up authority granted to the state in a 1980s settlement that relegates tribes’ standing to that of cities and towns.

Spokespeople for Mills and tribal representatives did not respond to questions on Wednesday. Upcoming changes were teased during a meeting of the Legislature’s judiciary committee, but no details were discussed publicly. Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, confirmed parts of the governor’s offer. Other details were confirmed by a lawmaker who declined to speak on the record.

It is unclear how the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes that are governed by the settlement would react to Mills’ offer. The governor and tribes have also differed on whether all changes should be made in state law governing the settlement that would require tribal ratification or in another area of law more easily changed by legislators.

For now, the tribes are planning to press their case in a Tuesday hearing for a more sweeping measure containing most of the 22 recommendations made by a 2020 task force on the issue. They spawned a measure that cleared a lame-duck legislative committee later that year but did not advance. Mills also vetoed a gaming-rights bill last year that came out of that push.

Chiefs have said they are not interested in settling for anything less than the rights other tribes receive under federal law, including jurisdiction over how non-tribal people are prosecuted for crimes on tribal land, control over access to lands and waters, taxation, gaming and several other issues. Mills has opposed a full sovereignty push on the grounds of how it could affect non-tribal communities.

Mills’ push may not be enough to win over skeptics of the wider effort. Keim, one of the judiciary panel members to vote against the original bill in 2020, said Wednesday after speaking with the governor’s office she was unhappy with the amount of time lawmakers would be given to read the bill before next week, noting negotiations between the state and chiefs.

“That’s unfair,” she said. “It seems like bad process.”