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Maine's Tribal Leaders Criticize Gov. Mills After She Vetoes Casino Bill

File photo of Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana
Maine Public
File photo of Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana

Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a bill that would have allowed Maine's four Native American tribes to offer casino gambling and other gaming activities on tribal lands. On Thursday afternoon, the Maine House failed to override that veto.

These rights are something the tribes have been seeking to restore since 1980, when they were extinguished as part of the Maine Land Claims Settlement Act over disputed land and reparations. Other federally recognized tribes around the country have successfully used gaming to generate revenue and expand economic development.

In a lengthy veto message, Mills said she has made improving tribal-state relations a priority of her administration, including creating and funding of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Population. She also pointed to her work to allow members of the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe to prosecute non-tribal members for certain domestic violence offenses in their tribal courts.

But when it comes to the expansion of tribal gaming, the governor said there were several reasons she could not support it.

"This bill provides no predictability or meaningful limitations on where tribal gaming may occur, or on the size of each facility," Mills wrote. "The tribal gaming facilities that the legislation would authorize could be large or small, anything from a grand casino to a few slot machines in a convenience store, and the State and adjacent non-tribal communities would have little or no influence over their placement."

She also highlighted the potential fiscal impact to the state budget. Maine's two casinos, Hollywood Slots and the Oxford Casino, pay 40% and 46% in revenue sharing to the state from their slot machines. Mills said the state Gambling Control Board estimates the diversion of business away from the two casinos would reduce state revenue by $17 million annually.

Mills expressed concern that proposed changes to state statute to allow the expansion of tribal gaming would put Maine at odds with the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and be subject to legal challenges. The governor said she offered to carry the bill forward to next session to work with tribal leaders to address the flaws, but she said that proposal was rejected.

“I believe that Maine's Federally-recognized Tribes have been unfairly excluded from the opportunity to operate their own gaming facility — a problem that I believe can and should be rectified,” Mills wrote.

But tribal representatives had strong criticism for Gov. Mills and her administration.

"We were very disappointed. We feel that this has been a very collaborative process with both parties, both chambers and the AG's office. And it's just, it's a letdown for sure," said Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana, in an interview Thursday morning.

Dana added that the gaming bill is "up for a potential veto override today and we are reaching out to our friends and allies in the legislature today trying to make that happen."

In a letter to lawmakers, some tribal leaders said that ever since Mills created the Maine Indian Claims Task Force in June 2019, she has only met with tribal leaders twice.

“Governor Mills provides lip service to wanting to engage on tribal issues,” said Maggie Dana, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point. “If she thought tribal issues were important she would meet specifically with tribal leadership to discuss updating the Settlement Act more than two times over 742 days.”

Bill Nicholas, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, said the tribes in Maine are simply asking to be treated like the other 570 federally recognized tribes. “This is a matter of fairness,” he said, ”One the governor doesn’t seem to comprehend or wish to invest the time to comprehend.”

But Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation praised Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey and lawmakers for the time and energy they spent working on tribal issues.

“They have shown true dedication to working in a collaborative fashion with the tribes even when we don’t see eye to eye,” Francis said.

The Maine House of Representatives voted 97 to 40 in favor of LD 554. The State Senate approved the bill by a vote of 22-13.

Updated: July 1, 2021 at 6:07 PM EDT
On Thursday afternoon, the Maine House failed to override Gov. Mills' veto.