House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, is pictured at her desk in the House chamber on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A heavily lobbied measure from Gov. Janet Mills that makes concessions to tribes including giving them control of a new mobile sports betting market advanced in the Maine House of Representatives on Friday.

The vote was the third in three days on high-profile bills looking to overhaul the state-tribal relationship by chipping away at a 1980s land-claims settlement that gave the Penobscot, Passmaquoddy and Maliseet tribes tens of millions of dollars in exchange for being governed effectively like cities and towns with fewer rights than other U.S. tribes.

Mills, a Democrat, took office in 2019 with a promise to improve relations with the tribes, but she has largely aligned against them on a sweeping sovereignty bill. This limited compromise that emerged from those negotiations is more likely to pass into law in 2022 because of the governor’s support, but it linked the parochial issue of gambling to the talks.

The measure would put Maine among a majority of states to legalize sports betting after it was allowed under a 2017 Supreme Court decision. Tribes would run the mobile side, which is estimated by the state to amount to 85 percent of the market, while casinos and off-track betting parlors would be the only entities allowed to conduct in-person betting.

It advanced in an 81-53 vote on Friday in the lower chamber. It faces further action. The tribes and their Democratic allies have called it a major step forward in repairing relations. Two corporate casinos have been approved by voters in the last 20 years, while tribal bids have been consistently shot down by voters and lawmakers.

“I’m filled with the hope that I am taking one more step to bring prosperity to the people of Maine and another step alongside our neighbors … in this important journey forward,” said House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town.

Opponents have hammered Mills for using sports betting as a bargaining chip with tribes and bypassing a measure initially approved by the Legislature last year that would tie betting to casinos and off-track parlors. She vetoed a bill passed in 2020 that would not have tied betting to Maine gaming facilities but would have taxed mobile betting at a higher rate.

The Hollywood Casino Hotel and Raceway in Bangor has been the leading opponent of the tribal betting measure, which would limit betting to the casino’s seasonal raceway at Bass Park. Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, and other lawmakers are planning a late effort that would insert casinos into the mobile market. Tribes contend it would dilute their share of revenue.

Sports betting is not the only issue wrapped up in this bill. Mills and tribes also agreed to tax relief for and a new consultation process with the state on laws that would affect tribes. Those are cribbed from the wider sovereignty proposal largely opposed by the governor, which cleared the House on Thursday.

But it was gaming that dominated a brief floor debate on Friday. Opponents citing wide-ranging critiques including a distaste for expanding gambling or the method endorsed by Mills.

“The section that I cannot support is the monopolization of sports betting and online gaming,” said Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...