Sen. Rick Bennett sits in the State House in Augusta
Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, speaks in favor of a consumer-owned utility at the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats in the Maine Legislature kept alive a sweeping tribal sovereignty bill opposed by Gov. Janet Mills on a Monday that was supposed to be lawmakers’ last day of work in a 2022 session that could stretch into May.

Lawmakers spent hours on Monday mulling over how they would handle the bill, which would put Maine tribes in line with hundreds of other federally recognized tribes on jurisdiction over natural resources, land acquisition, taxation and more. The bill passed the Democratic-led Legislature earlier this month, but it has not been funded nor sent to Mills’ desk.

The tense environment in Augusta came after Mills, also a Democrat, communicated to tribes last week that she would veto the bill and her own sports-betting compromise with tribes if both reached her desk, a prospect that had a mostly progressive group of tribal-rights supporters nervous. In a letter sent Thursday, she urged leading lawmakers to hang onto the bill.

The compromise bill from Mills will still result in historic changes, amending a 1980s land-claims agreement that is at the center of tribal rights discussions to give the tribes exclusive access to mobile sports betting, start a consultation process with tribes and exempt some tribal businesses and crops from state taxes.

Work stretched onto past dark on Monday at the State House with Democrats divided on Monday over how to dispose of the measure. They did not act, which keeps it alive until the Legislature returns on May 9 to handle potential Mills vetoes on other bills. Their options will include passing it and risking a veto, watering it down or allowing it to die.

“This Legislature should do its job and vote on this measure regardless of the threats of the governor,” said Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford, who was among the few Republicans to back the larger measure but opposed the gaming compromise. “It’s an important bill and it deserves a vote out of the Senate.”

The bigger bill was in danger after the Legislature’s appropriations committee declined to fund it last week. A chance at revival on Monday was squandered after Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, moved to force a floor vote. It put majority Democrats who support the bill in the strange position of tabling that motion from Davis, an opponent of the bill.

Mills’ resistance was made clear in her letter, in which she said sending her the bill and forcing a veto would undermine progress the parties have made in other areas, including other bills focused on Passamaquoddy Tribe water quality, water quality standards and criminal justice.

“It would serve no constructive purpose and only inflame emotions on all sides of the discussion, while likely harming the positive and constructive relationship we have worked so hard to build,” she wrote.