Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, gets emotional while speaking with tribal members including Chief Maggie Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, left, following the House passage of a bill at the State House in Augusta, Maine, that allows the tribes to regulate their own drinking water and other water-related issues on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A tribal sovereignty measure took a historic step forward on Thursday when the Maine House of Representatives initially approved it in a vote that nevertheless fell short of the margin needed to survive a potential veto from Gov. Janet Mills.

It was a vote decades in the making, representing the first time a legislative body has taken major steps to overhaul a 1980s land-claims settlement that gave Maine tribes tens of millions of dollars in exchange for effectively being regulated like cities and towns. In other parts of the country, tribes have sweeping autonomy that the ones here lack.

The path forward is uncertain. While the Democratic governor kicked off her tenure in 2019 by promising to overhaul state-tribal relations, she opposes many elements of this measure, which would give tribes authority over natural resources, land acquisition, criminal justice and taxes and allow them to benefit from federal Indian laws going forward.

Mills instead supports a parallel measure negotiated with tribes that borrows parts of this package by amending tax laws and enshrining a consultation process on state laws affecting tribes. But it is controversial because it seeks to give tribes exclusive rights over mobile sports betting, something established gaming interests have rallied against.

While that may be the best bet for passage this year, tribes and their group of mostly progressive allies have still pushed the more sweeping measure to the legislative floor. It passed the House in a 81-55 vote on Thursday after two hours of debate witnessed by leaders of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes.

Democrats led the charge for the measure on the House floor, with only Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, voting against it. Rep. Thomas Martin, R-Greene, was the sole Republican who voted to advance the bill, along with three independents. It fell short of the two-thirds majority in both chambers eventually needed to override any veto from the governor. The bill faces further action in both chambers.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said it was “a little bit surreal” to see a vote after several years of discussion, a sign that awareness of tribal issues have advanced. That attention is a sign of progress even if the broader measure does not succeed, he said.

“These are issues that even 10 years ago were not getting to where they’re getting now,” he said. “It’s a credit to the people of Maine that we’re engaged in these things.”

On the floor, supporters characterized the legislation as a way to right the imbalance of power created by the settlement. As a result, Maine is the only state where tribes do not benefit from federal laws.

“There is no justification for further delay or procrastination on our part,” said Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland.

Tribal rights have become one of the most complicated issues in Augusta. Mills swore when she became governor she would improve the relationship between Maine and the tribes after years of discord and more recent disagreements under former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican running against Mills in 2022.

In 2019, Mills made Maine the first state to ban Native American school mascots after replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Those more symbolic shifts were followed by a shift in domestic violence criminal jurisdiction, but later talks between the former attorney general and the tribes over more comprehensive changes have largely bogged down.

The Mills-tribal bill amounts to a major step forward, but their recent changes giving casinos an in-person slice of the market has not satisfied some members of the Legislature’s gaming committee who plan to introduce another amendment giving casinos access to mobile sports betting industry, something one tribal leader said would defeat the purpose of the bill.

Opponents questioned the implications of ceding power to the tribes, noting how difficult it is to amend the agreement. Rep. Gary Drinkwater, R-Milford, who grew up with Penobscot Nation members as friends, said tribal members had been mistreated but have been “great neighbors.”

But he said the state and tribes had made strides in cleaning up a once-polluted Penobscot River and questioned the bill allowing tribes to continue getting aid to municipalities.

“I tried to get to yes on this bill. I want to vote for this bill, Mr. Speaker,” he said. “The problem … is they want to be sovereign.”

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.