Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, speaks at a news conference on July 17, 2015, alongside Maine Fire Marshal Joe Thomas. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Backers of a sweeping tribal sovereignty effort so far stymied by diverse opposition and the COVID-19 pandemic are preparing a final push in the Legislature this year ahead of an uncertain 2022 election that could reshape state government.

The effort — one of the most complex issues facing Maine lawmakers and would give tribes more authority over taxation, natural resources, criminal justice and gaming — is set for another hearing next week. It was delayed last year amid lingering opposition from Gov. Janet Mills to pieces of the effort in a split with top legislative Democrats.

The tribes have organized a coalition that has revved up outreach in recent weeks. The major sovereignty bill has dozens of public comments submitted ahead of a Tuesday hearing. Despite a tight session set to end early this spring, supporters say advancing is crucial ahead of an uncertain election season in which Mills is facing former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“There’s a now-or-never feel to this for me,” said Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, who is co-sponsoring the bill. “The last thing I want to see is nothing happen.”

An omnibus bill would alter terms of a 1980s land-claims settlement between Maine and three tribes — the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseets. They got $81.5 million in exchange for an agreement that effectively relegated them  to the status of cities and towns. Other federally recognized tribes in the U.S. enjoy more autonomy. The tribal-state relationship has been fraught since then, with governors and lawmakers reluctant to cede power.

Mills has been a large part of that as attorney general and governor. A lame-duck legislative panel in 2020 endorsed splitting up an omnibus sovereignty proposal into three pieces in a bid to make parts of it more likely to pass.

The Democratic governor vetoed a measure last year accounting for one part of that — allowing tribes to run gaming establishments on their land. The major sovereignty bill, tackles sporting, taxation and civil issues and seeks to enshrine a consultation process between Maine and the tribes. Another measure would address criminal justice jurisdiction issues.

This year, Mills’ office has been meeting regularly with tribal representatives to discuss various issues, but there is no indication that the governor’s views on the push have changed meaningfully on the topic since she criticized the larger effort as “sweeping” in early 2020. The governor’s office did not return requests for comment on Tuesday.

The issue does not fall neatly along political lines, though progressives generally support it and most Republicans have been skeptical. Backers include House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who called it a chance to “correct a longstanding injustice,” and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who said lawmakers must push the issue through.

Some Democrats on the Legislature’s judiciary panel joined with most Republicans in voting against the first proposal when it advanced in 2020.  One was Rep. Chris Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, who has submitted a narrower bill on legal autonomy and land acquisition.

In a statement, he described a concern about expanded gaming and mining in the state. Though he expressed a desire to see injustices righted, his major concern was that Maine might not have a say in issues that would become tribal matters, making “actual consequences for future generations more significant than our intent in the moment to do good,” he said.

More of these types of arguments will continue next week, said Rep. Tom Martin of Greene, the sole Republican sponsor on the bill. He said he also expects people may want to see the issue delayed again during a short legislative session with the 2022 elections ahead.

But Martin said the urgency of the issue was clear to him as someone with a Passamaquoddy wife. He hoped the amount of effort behind the scenes gathering support and an aggressive conversation beginning soon might change some minds.

“It’s about education,” he said.