Gov. Janet Mills attends the return of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce's annual award ceremony at the Maine Savings Amphitheater in Bangor, June 21, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Gov. Janet Mills is working around fellow Democrats in Maine’s congressional delegation to slow a tribal sovereignty effort led by Rep. Jared Golden, arguing the policy should be negotiated between the state and tribes before moving forward.

Last week, the governor’s lawyer sent a letter to two top members of the House Appropriations Committee asking them to delay Golden’s measure, which would allow Maine tribes to automatically benefit from future laws affecting Native Americans nationwide. The tribes are now shut out from these laws unless explicitly mentioned under the terms of a 1980s settlement.

The measure is advancing through Congress after passing through the House Natural Resources Committee in mid-June and getting included in a draft version of the interior committee’s budget bill by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District.

The episode illustrates the depth of the break on tribal rights between Maine’s top elected Democrats. Governors often work closely with the congressional delegation on hot-button issues and rarely lobby others in Congress on the major priorities of members. The state’s two U.S. senators have so far been silent on an issue that may reach them soon.

Mills has been clear for months that she opposes Golden’s effort. After she was elected in 2019, she vowed to fix the long-broken state-tribal relationship. But that invited a major sovereignty push from the tribes that the former attorney general has largely resisted, although the sides made progress by passing a bill handing mobile sports betting to tribes this year.

The governor’s office objected to the bill because the state did not help craft it and because it would subvert the 40-year-old settlement that gave tribes millions of dollars in exchange for being treated largely like cities and towns. The letter to the members of Congress from Jerry Reid, Mills’ lawyer, saying she is discussing the measure with tribal leaders.

“The Governor does not want to see the Wabanaki Nations unfairly excluded from certain benefits that are generally available to Federally recognized Tribes, and she believes there is potential for negotiated agreement that would address this concern,” the letter read.

A Mills spokesperson said the governor’s office continues to communicate with the delegation about the bill. A Golden spokesperson said the 2nd District congressman’s office had not been informed of the letter, although Pingree’s office said it had been.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis having to lobby for tribes to be included in beneficial federal laws is burdensome to their communities. Part of the bill’s design would be to force the state to lobby against each bill they do not want tribes to benefit from. He said conversations with the governor’s office are ongoing, but he did not see much progress so far.

“I’m open to compromise, but it can’t be for the same situation that has continued to compromise our sovereignty,” he said.

There are few laws where Maine’s tribes have been included. The most significant recent addition happened earlier this year, when they were mentioned in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in a major update to their ability to prosecute domestic violence against their members in decades that built upon a state law passed two years ago.

In a statement, Golden said the process of determining if the tribes should be included in federal law does not require state approval and is a congressional matter. He said that while he understood the state is willing to work with the tribes on a compromise, he believed little progress had been made.

“While we welcome good-faith efforts to improve the legislation, we will not slow our forward momentum in advancing a bill on a matter on which Congress has principal authority,” Golden said.

Pingree reiterated in a statement that the Maine tribes should be treated equally to others across the country, calling the current situation a “disparity that has uniquely challenged Maine’s tribes for decades.”

Maine’s senators were noncommittal. A spokesperson for Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said King is gathering information and deciding whether to support similar language in the Senate, which would increase its likelihood of success.

“If this bill moves forward through the regular Senate committee process, [Republican Sen. Susan] Collins will consider it carefully, listening to the positions advanced by both advocates and opponents,” Collins spokesperson Annie Clark said.