Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation speaks at the Bangor Daily News office on Jan. 30, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Tribal chiefs on Tuesday reemphasized their support for a sweeping sovereignty measure that they are still lobbying lawmakers to pass over Gov. Janet Mills’ objections while taking steps toward a compromise with the governor.

The remarks by three leaders of Maine’s federally recognized tribes came at the outset of an emotional hearing before the Legislature’s judiciary committee on a bill looking to give tribes more sovereignty over taxation, sporting, natural resources and criminal justice on their lands. More than 1,200 people submitted written testimony on the bill.

The legislation, which is backed by top legislative Democrats, came out of a task force that studied how to improve Maine’s relationship with the tribes at the outset of Mills’ tenure. It has been discussed at length for two years, but Mills has long been against a wide overhaul of the 1980s agreement with Maine tribes that gives them less authority than others enjoy.

Instead, the Democratic governor has proposed a starting point compromise that would give the tribes control of a new mobile sports betting market, provide tax benefits and create a process by which Maine would consult with the tribes on policies that affect them. Chiefs thanked Mills for engaging, but it was clear that the offer falls short of the broader changes they want.

“I want to be clear that the Penobscot Nation does not view these discussions as a substitute or replacement of [the bill being heard Tuesday], which is intended to modernize the state settlement act,” said Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis.

Chiefs touched on how the 1980 settlement that governs their relationship to the state has affected them culturally and economically. They also emphasized the months of work and resources invested in shaping the legislation with the hope that the Legislature would take a vote this session so they could understand where the State House stands on sovereignty.

“This resolve really highlights the diminishment of rights, powers and our privileges and immunities, and the disenfranchisement of our tribes and citizens,” said Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

Sovereignty supporters have a hard road to passing the complex legislation. Corporate interests have voiced concerns in the past that the tribes will impose different standards than the state. The issue does not fall neatly along political lines, and Mills’ proposal to give tribes control over mobile sports betting is already prompting resistance from gaming interests.

Even if the more sweeping bill passes both chambers, Mills has made it clear she would not support it as written. The consequences could lead to conflict in the future, Jerry Reid, Mills’ legal counsel, said in written testimony.

“Any sitting Legislature considering amendments to the Implementing Act should proceed carefully and only when it has confidence that the meaning and potential consequences of the amendments are thoroughly understood,” he wrote.