A woman in a light-blue checkered jumper with dark hair speaks to Sen. Joe Baldacci, a man with dark brown hair wearing a mask, a dark blue zip up sports jacket and blue jeans.
Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, talks with a supporter outside of the Cross Insurance Center on July 14, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A compromise offer from Gov. Janet Mills on tribal sovereignty sparked an ugly Friday dispute with a Bangor lawmaker who accused the governor of trying to subvert the effort by letting tribes run a new mobile sports betting market.

Language for a potential deal between Mills and tribes was still in the works on Friday, but a summary of the proposal from the Democratic governor’s office obtained by the Bangor Daily News said federally recognized tribes in Maine would be the only groups eligible to get mobile sports betting licenses. Casinos that have been seeking the business would be cut out. Mills vetoed a sports betting measure in 2020 over concerns about expanding gambling in Maine.

It was a case study in how delicate negotiations are around giving tribes more authority by overhauling a 1980s land-claims settlement that relegated them to the status of cities and towns. The bid is wrapped up in a number of sensitive issues with gaming chief among them. Mills’ offer would also amend state tax laws to give Wabanaki tribes and members certain sales and income tax benefits available to other federally recognized tribes, recoup some state sales taxes and set up a consultation process for state policies that would affect the tribes.

But the gaming issue is likely to be the most inflammatory aspect of the bill. It touches on the long history of tribes’ efforts to get gaming, the forces that have long stymied them and the more recent push for online sports betting after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it in 2019.

It split the Bangor delegation. On Friday, Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, accused the governor of structuring the bills to defeat both tribal rights and sports betting measures. He was the only Senate Democrat to oppose a tribal gaming bill that Mills vetoed last year, but he said he generally supports tribal sovereignty efforts aside from gaming expansion.

“It’s a direct threat to jobs and businesses if it passes,” he said.

Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said that was a cynical assessment of the governor’s efforts. She said Mills’ focus “remains solely on enacting good policy” and making progress with tribes. Baldacci should “engage in these debates in the Legislature in a respectful, constructive manner that is focused on the merits of policy rather than politically-charged attacks,” Crete said.

The bill would operate similarly to a sports betting bill that passed in both chambers last year but has languished without funding since then. Off-track betting parlors would be the only entities able to seek in-person betting licenses. The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac tribes would be the only ones able to get mobile licenses.

Similar to other state gaming laws, the measure would set revenue from the industry to cover regulation, gaming addiction treatment, support harness racing and agricultural fairs.

It immediately agitated gaming lobbyists. Rep. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, said he was accosted by three lobbyists connected to the issue on Thursday before Mills’ State of the State speech. He said he is still learning about the bill itself, but he has supported two tribal gaming bills in the past. That is a “tough position” to take in Bangor, he said.

“The state needs to be square with the tribes, but I’m not sure how we do that,” Perry said.

Tribal gaming has been a fraught subject in the state. Tribes have tried referendums and legislative avenues to get casino rights, something that could prove to be an economic driver. But heavy lobbying from casinos and skepticism from governors have defeated prior attempts.

Negotiations remain tense. Tribal representatives did not respond to a request for comment. Chiefs have been adamant that they want the full slate of rights enjoyed by other tribes in the country. While some kind of agreement looks close, all five chiefs wrote a Bangor Daily News Op-Ed in support of a bill from U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd Congressional District, that would grant them wider sovereignty.

Rep. Amy Roeder, D-Bangor, said the compromise bill felt like a “concession” to tribes looking for full sovereignty. She was not worried her city would suffer from tribes also having the ability to run gaming options.

“I think Hollywood Casino is going to be fine,” she said.