Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Rena Newell, left, celebrates with Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, 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

One of the lawmakers who represents Bangor in the Maine Legislature, Democratic Sen. Joe Baldacci, is at the center of a debate over sports betting and tribal gaming rights. One particular sentence in a recent BDN story about Baldacci and this debate caught our attention.

Here’s that sentence, from an April 14 story by BDN political editor Michael Shepherd: “While [Baldacci] said he backs tribal sovereignty efforts except for gaming because of Bangor’s financial ties to the casino, he criticized the process that led to the Mills-tribal deal.”

So essentially, he says he backs tribal sovereignty, except for the issue that impacts an important (and powerful) part of his constituency. This is an argument we, and surely Maine tribes, have heard before. To be fair, we’ve probably made arguments that have sounded like this to the tribes, too.

We don’t know for sure what the next few days of legislative and executive action in Augusta will mean for Maine tribes. But we do know it is well past time for a different approach to tribal-state relationship.

In February, on this same issue of sports betting and tribal gaming rights, an attorney testifying on behalf of Oxford Casino & Hotel said something very similar to Baldacci.

“We support the efforts of Maine’s Tribes toward self-determination and dignity, but not these specific provisions which exclude the existing casinos — good longtime partners of the State.” Daniel Walker of law firm Preti Flaherty testified to lawmakers.

How many more times can the tribes hear “we support your self-determination and dignity, but…”? If state officials and powerful interests are always filling in that blank with some reason or another, then there will never be progress in rebalancing this important relationship.

This is why we feel the compromise approach of LD 585 is so critical. After  years of being shut out of the gaming industry, that bill would give Maine’s federally recognized tribes control of the online portion of a new sports betting market, and also deals with tribal-state collaboration and tax relief for the tribes.

The bill is the product of months of talks that included tribal leaders, lawmakers, the office of Gov. Janet Mills, and Attorney General Aaron Frey. Tribal leaders and some lawmakers have said it is not a substitute for the larger tribal sovereignty effort that has met resistance from Mills.

We have never pretended that the debate surrounding tribal sovereignty is a simple one. There are many issues wrapped up in a complicated and frankly shameful history. Just look at the report released last week by Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations. Its authors use the phrase “history of fraud” to describe the state’s dealings with the tribes.

The state and the tribes need to take incremental steps forward together. That means recognizing the way the tribes have been treated unfairly in the past, with gaming being just one example, and adjusting accordingly.

Given the complexity and scope involved, it has seemed to us that working to identify areas of agreement and making progress where possible provided the best path forward for needed change. We’re big believers in doing what you can, when you can.

As a state, we have to be able to figure out ways to work together to accomplish the hard things — to work through past wrongs and current complexities with our tribal neighbors. This means taking actions of substance, not just symbolic ones. LD 585 and a bill to empower the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s clean water efforts, for example, offer positive and substantial steps forward that should be taken right now as part of what must be a larger, ongoing conversation.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...