AUGUSTA, Maine — A sweeping tribal sovereignty effort will be heard again by Maine lawmakers on Tuesday with Gov. Janet Mills preparing a counteroffer falling short of what tribes want but raising the chances of imminent progress.
The centerpiece bill backed by tribes would effectively give the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseets the same rights as other tribes across the country on issues ranging from criminal justice, taxation, sporting and natural resources on their lands. Mills, who has criticized the scope of the measure, plans to introduce a more limited one being heard later this week.
It underscores the delicate position sovereignty supporters are in. While chiefs have been clear that they want full sovereignty enjoyed by other tribes, the agreement governing the state-tribal relationship goes back more than 40 years in part because the state has been reluctant to give up power. Corporate interests are wrapped up in the negotiations as well.
Here is a breakdown of the issue ahead of the hearing before the Legislature’s judiciary panel.
What is tribal sovereignty about, and why is it a conversation here?
Sovereignty is a people’s ability to govern themselves. The U.S. government recognizes hundreds of tribes as standalone governments. A few laws detailed by the National Conference of State Legislatures have shaped the landscape of sovereignty in the last 70 years, including tribal control over gaming, child welfare and criminal justice matters.
But things are different in Maine. In the 1970s, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes sued Maine for the return of two-thirds of the state’s land mass. It led to a protracted legal fight ended by a 1980 settlement that gave the tribes tens of millions of dollars in exchange for being effectively treated by the state like cities or towns. Interpretations of the law have been subject to various court battles and efforts to change it have been numerous.
The main thrust of sovereignty supporters’ arguments touches on a line in the federal version of the law blocking tribes from benefiting from national laws passed without Maine explicitly allowing it. A 2019 study from Suffolk Law found the tribes had missed out on 151 federal laws that would have benefited them.
Tribes have argued it robs them of their cultural and economic identity. For example, while tribes across the country can build casinos on their land, Maine tribes are subject to the same process as any other casino. Voters shot down a tribal casino in 2003 before approving corporate ones in Bangor and Oxford.
Why are we discussing it again?
When she entered office in 2019, Mills, a Democrat, set a goal of bettering Maine’s relationship with its tribes after several rocky years. Many of those came during her tenure as attorney general. In that role, she largely defended the state’s authority.
There have been many improvements, but the governor has resisted a bigger effort beginning in 2019 to cede power to the tribes. She opposed a bill stemming from 22 recommendations on how to overhaul the agreement alongside water, timber, gaming and paper interests. It was largely supported by social justice, environmental and tribal advocates.
A historic vote by the Judiciary Committee in 2020 approved three bills stemming from that initial piece of legislation. But those efforts died when lawmakers never came back to Augusta after the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the session.
Another run at restoring tribal sovereignty was set for last year, but was tabled as supporters questioned whether the bill would get the necessary attention during a largely online session. A bill allowing more tribal gaming rights passed both chambers, but not with enough support to override Mills’ eventual veto.
What is different from the last time supporters tried to change it?
The core principles of the bill being heard Tuesday are still roughly the same as last year. It would require the state to consult tribes on policy changes that could affect them, as well as give tribes more governance over economic, natural resources and cultural affairs on their land.
What is most different is Mills’ role. Her office is supposed to introduce an amendment to another bill that would give them control of a new online sports betting market, a lucrative industry lawmakers have been trying to legalize in Maine for years, plus giving tribes tax relief and a consultation process on state decisions that affect them.
The tribes are expected to push their preference for full tribal rights on Tuesday. They have yet to publicly acknowledge the bill Mills is putting forward. Her legal counsel, Jerry Reid, was confident in a Bangor Daily News Op-Ed published last week that agreement would be reached.
Mills, speaking on Friday at a community college event in Auburn, did not say if there are other areas she would consider negotiating on, couching negotiations as a work in progress.
“We’re working well with the tribes and I look forward to continuing to work with the tribes. We’re developing better and better relationships every day,” Mills said. “I look forward to doing that as long as I’m governor of the state.”