Gov. Janet Mills attends an event at the Blaine House, Friday, March 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine – Gov. Janet Mills is opposing an effort to allow Maine tribes to benefit from future federal laws, clashing with other top elected Democrats just as the governor and tribes try to close a compromise in the Maine Legislature.

The bill from U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, would mean any future Indian laws would also apply to the Wabanaki tribes. The tribes are now shut out from these laws unless they are explicitly mentioned due to a 1980s land-claims settlement that essentially reduced the tribes to municipalities within the state.

Both the tribes and top legislative Democrats support Golden’s bill. A state-tribal commission and a panel dedicated to studying tribal issues support similar changes. The Mills administration said in Thursday testimony that Maine was not consulted in its drafting and its passage would set a precedent for Congress amending the 1980 legal agreement without Maine.

“We respectfully request that Congress ensure that the State of Maine … are consulted in the development of such legislation in the future to avoid problems like this one,” wrote Jerry Reid, the governor’s top lawyer.

The schism could make the last few days of Maine’s 2022 legislative session more tense. On Friday, the Maine House of Representative is expected to vote on a compromise between Mills and tribes that would hand a new mobile sports betting market to tribes, although she still opposes much of a more sweeping sovereignty push that won a historic Thursday vote.

Reid argued Golden’s bill would create legal challenges in the state. He pointed to the recent authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which included the Wabanaki tribes, saying some provisions would preempt state jurisdiction under the 1980s agreement.

That settlement agreement is at the heart of tribal rights discussions in Maine. Mills vowed to fix the state’s relationship with its tribes when she came into office, but she has resisted greater efforts to change state law, which would necessitate Maine ceding power to the tribes.

But supporters have considerable momentum. While the sovereignty vote in the Maine House largely came along party lines and would likely not survive a governor’s veto, both houses of the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik to fix its longstanding water quality issues outside the state’s purview.

Other top Democrats in Augusta are allied with the tribes. Their legislative leaders, led by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, noted in their testimony on Golden’s bill that an independent study found Maine’s tribes had been blocked from 150 federal laws that would have benefited them.

“This dynamic has impeded tribal self-determination and negatively affected communities in Maine,” they wrote.