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Task Force Report Calls For Sweeping Changes To Maine Tribes' Relationship To State Government

Susan Sharon
Maine Public/file
Gov. Janet Mills announces a posthumous pardon of attorney Donald Gellers, who worked with the Passamaquoddy tribe, as Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Rena Newell (left) and Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Darrell Newell look on.

A new report is proposing sweeping changes in the way Maine’s tribes interact with state government. The findings come from a task force charged with reviewing the landmark 1980 Indian land claims act.

The nearly 300-page report details conflicts that have arisen over competing interpretations of the settlement act. It also lays out how the act has resulted in Maine tribes being treated differently than most of the nation’s native Americans, with limited powers of self determination.

The premise of the 1980 federal law was the tribes would give up their claim to land for cash and recognition from the federal government. But their relationship with the state is more like municipalities’ than sovereign governments’, and that’s something the tribes want to change.

“The recommendations are pretty consistent in that we are recommending that the Maine tribes move toward being more in line with the other tribes across the country,” says Democratic Rep. Donna Bailey of Saco, who co-chaired the task force.

The 22 recommendations include establishing a process for tribal-state collaboration and alternative dispute resolution, recognizing the jurisdiction of tribal courts over certain criminal and juvenile offenses committed on tribal lands, implementing the tribes’ authority to exercise jurisdiction under the federal Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act and giving tribes the right to regulate fishing and hunting by nontribal citizens on tribal lands.

The task force also recommends that tax laws be changed so the tribal members making money on tribal lands will not be subject to state income taxes and products sold on tribal land will not be subject to the state sales tax.

Already, the sweeping changes are generating concern from members of the Judiciary Committee. The most controversial seems to be a provision that would place Maine tribes under the Federal Indian Gaming Act, which could result in the establishment of tribal casinos that would compete with the two that are already in place.

“That casino not only employs a lot of people in my district, but it is a significant part of the tax base for the city of Bangor. But there are so many other issues here,” says Democrat Barbara Cardone, who represents Bangor, where Hollywood Casino is located.

The Judiciary Committee plans to hold a daylong public hearing on the recommendations next month. Some members say the complexity of the proposals may be too much to take up in a session scheduled to end in April, but several committee members suggested that those with broad support should go to the full Legislature for consideration this session, while others could be delayed.

Originally published 5:02 p.m. ET. January 14, 2020.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.