William Nicholas, Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, addresses the Legislature, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers are discussing a tribal sovereignty overhaul that aims to set aside thorny issues and  win enough Republican support to get around a potential veto from Gov. Janet Mills.

Details of the talks being led by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, spilled out on Thursday after the state’s five tribal chiefs addressed lawmakers for the first time since 2002. The Democratic governor was invited but did not attend, with her office citing a scheduling conflict and saying that she has offered to meet with chiefs as soon as this week.

While Mills has tried to ease long-standing tension between the state and tribes, she has also opposed some of their biggest priorities. Top among them is a sweeping overhaul of a 1980 settlement agreement governing the state-tribal relationship. It treats tribes more like cities and towns, while others across the country enjoy sweeping self-governing powers.

The tribes’ preferred sovereignty measure was set aside last year in favor of a limited compromise with Mills that granted tribes control of a new mobile sports betting market and tax relief. Talbot Ross is coming back with a measure built on the one that failed in 2022.

What is new this year is the coalition needed to pass it. One chief said talks with Mills have been “minimal” and the goal is to pass a bill that can win two-thirds support in both chambers to override a potential veto. It puts House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, at the center of the action, and he confirmed Thursday that he is working on the bill.

“If we get a good bill out of this that corrects the things that were wrong about the 1980 settlement act, we don’t really see why there would be any opposition to it,” he said.

The text of Talbot Ross’ bill has not been released, but her spokesperson, Mary-Erin Casale, said it will be public in the next couple of weeks. Casale said the bill is based on a previous bill,l as well as recommendations made in 2020 by a state task force. The last bill only applied to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes. This one includes the Mi’kmaqs.

The original version of the last sovereignty measure was a sweeping 46-page document granting Maine tribes the same rights as others, giving the tribes sweeping power over natural resources, criminal justice and taxation on their land.

This led to opposition from a large variety of interests, including the Maine Forest Products Council, whose lobbyist predicted in legislative testimony last year that tribes would set strict limits on tribal lands that lie throughout Maine and outside of reservations.

Republicans are sensitive to those concerns, Faulkingham said. He said some of the stronger natural resources changes in Talbot Ross’ last bill would be set aside in this one, saying the state already has some of the highest environmental standards in the country. Gaming rights would also not be included in this measure, giving time for sports betting to begin.

Maine House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, observes floor votes at the State House in Augusta on Dec. 7, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. The Senate is seen by tribal-rights supporters as safer, given that they only need one Republican to clinch a two-thirds majority to avert a veto. Mills has never lost a veto override vote during her tenure.

In the House, 17 Republicans would be needed to enact the bill, assuming Democrats and independents are aligned. The minority party has historically been skeptical of tribal sovereignty, but the libertarian-minded Faulkingham began engaging with tribes since he was selected to the position in December.

The governor “cares deeply” about the Wabanaki people and is interested in engaging with them on health, education, economic development and jurisdictional issues,” Ben Goodman, her spokesperson, said. Chief William Nicholas Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township said while talks with Mills’ office have been “minimal,” the sides could improve upon that.

But for now, he said the goal is to collaborate with Democrats and Republicans to get a bill that could survive a veto if it comes to that.

“We’re hoping that the governor doesn’t do that,” Nicholas said.

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...