A view of the Penobscot River can be seen on Friday from Indian Island on Dec. 9, 2016. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine – A sweeping tribal sovereignty bill advanced in the Maine Legislature on Tuesday for the second time in two years, putting Democratic lawmakers on a collision course with Gov. Janet Mills’ and her compromise measure on the topic.

The issue of tribal rights has been an emotional and complex subject during Mills’ tenure after she vowed to repair relationships with the Wabanaki people. But she has balked at the state giving up the level of control the tribes want by revising a 1980 land-claims settlement to put them on equal footing with other federally recognized tribes.

An amended version of the bill would give three of Maine’s four tribes expanded authority over fishing, hunting and natural resources on their lands, sovereign immunity from being sued unless they choose to waive that immunity under federal Indian law and the ability to tax people on their own lands while being free from state income tax law. 

It passed on a 8-6 vote in the judiciary panel with Rep. Chris Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, joining Republicans to oppose the measure, which sets up a tricky proposition for tribal-rights backers. The vote of six Democrats and two independents was a show of support for the tribes, but it also showed the bill has a hard road to avoid a veto from the Democratic governor.

Mills’ proposed compromise, which would give tribes control of a new online sports betting market, is perhaps more likely to pass in the State House, but it is also no sure bet with casinos angry that they were passed over. On Tuesday, supporters did not focus on the challenges ahead, instead reflecting on the hours of work it took to get the bill to this point.

“I think this is the civil rights issue of our era in Maine in particular,” said Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland.

Republicans did not speak to their opposition on Tuesday, but Babbidge said he would offer an amended version of the bill that would include portions overhauling criminal jurisdiction, taxation and consultation process in the law, but setting aside an expanded gaming element and other thorny issues.

The Judiciary Committee advanced a similar version of this bill in August 2020, but it died after a lame-duck Legislature never returned to Augusta to hold floor votes.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated provisions of the bill that advanced Wednesday. Gaming was not included.