Maine Gov. Janet Mills signs a bill to establish Indigenous Peoples' Day, Friday, April 26, 2019, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Jerry Reid is chief legal counsel for Gov. Janet Mills.

When Gov. Janet Mills took office, she directed me – as then-nominee for commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection – to look for opportunities to work with the Wabanaki Nations to heal divisions of the past and to make progress on issues that impact the lives of tribal members.

I am proud to say that, through good faith effort, we have made progress. We negotiated and enacted the strictest water quality standards in the country to protect sustenance fishing for tribal members. We revised Maine law so that the Tribes could pursue charges of domestic violence against non-tribal members in their courts. The state, under the governor’s leadership, conveyed back to the Passamaquoddy Tribe a culturally-important site on Meddybemps Lake. We prohibited Native American mascots in schools and established Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Maine, among other things. These are real accomplishments, but we also know that much work remains to be done.

 

When I became the governor’s chief legal counsel, the governor renewed her directive of “collaboration, not litigation” and asked that I engage with the Wabanaki Nations to find common ground on the issues addressed in LD 1626, An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Task Force on Changes to the Maine Indian Land Claims Implementing Act. LD 1626 is a complicated bill that would rewrite much of the state law implementing Maine’s 1980 Indian Land Claims Settlement, and we are concerned that some of the legislation’s broadly written provisions would lead to new legal disputes over their meaning and effect at a time when we are working so hard to improve relations.

At the same time, however, the legislation includes opportunities for consensus. So last summer, I joined with lawmakers and lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office to begin regular meetings with representatives from the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and the Penobscot Nation in an effort to find agreement.

 

At first, we simply started a discussion, laying the groundwork for trust by agreeing at the outset that everyone should speak plainly and directly, even if their message was difficult to convey. From there, we identified three areas that could, with the consent of all involved, form the basis of an agreement that would bring about meaningful change and deliver real benefits to tribal communities. These included: 1) creating a new, collaborative process for state government decision-making on issues of importance to the Tribes; 2) revising our tax laws to support tribal communities; and 3) implementing statutory changes that allow Maine Tribes to benefit from gaming activity in a manner that is fair and creates no risks for non-tribal communities. For the past seven months, we undertook difficult and detailed, good-faith negotiations over each area.

 

Today, I am proud to report that we have made significant headway. We are working toward institutional changes in how tribal and state governments interact, focusing on matters that stand to have a unique impact on the Tribes. State agencies whose work intersects with tribal issues would be required to designate a tribal liaison and adopt a policy that ensures Tribes have a meaningful opportunity to be heard on decisions that most affect them. The process would improve communication and encourage respectful dialogue, which is the foundation for a strong relationship.

 

On taxation, we see an opportunity to amend Maine’s laws to provide income and sales tax relief to the Tribes and tribal members who reside in Indian territory, delivering meaningful relief within some of our most economically marginalized communities.

And on gaming, we have identified online sports betting, which is already the subject of a bill pending in the Legislature and which many states have legalized already, as an avenue to fulfill the Tribes’ desire for gaming opportunities while avoiding the issues associated with building new casinos. We are now working together on legislation that would make the Tribes, rather than out-of-state corporate gaming interests, the primary beneficiary of online sports wagering in Maine.

 

Our negotiations remain ongoing, and we are working toward finalizing legislative language that could be enacted this session, but today I want to extend my gratitude to the Wabanaki Nations and their representatives for their willingness to engage in this process for the past seven months. If we succeed, this bill would make the most significant reforms in tribal-state relations in the past 40 years, and it would serve as a building block for further progress – delivering on the governor’s promise for more collaboration and less litigation.