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Maine's tribal sovereignty bill advances to the full Legislature

A legislative committee narrowly approved a bill Tuesday that dramatically overhauls a decades-old agreement between the state and tribal nations in Maine.

The 8-6 vote by the Judiciary Committee fell mostly along party lines, with most Democrats supporting sweeping changes to the state's relationship with four tribes in Maine and Republicans opposed.

The bill, often referred to as tribal sovereignty legislation, aims to rewrite the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, and explicitly say Maine's four Wabanaki tribes will have the same rights, privileges and powers AS other federally recognized tribes.

The 1980 agreement was supposed to resolve the tribes' land claims against the state, but it has denied the tribes rights afforded to their counterparts in other states and the tribes say it has also impeded their right to economic self-determination.

Many Democrats like Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, of South Portland, view the bill as a moral imperative.

"If we manage to pass [L.D. 1626] to the floor, and by some miraculous circumstance pass it, it will be the most important thing I've done, not only this year, but my entire service in the Legislature," Reckitt said.

Reckitt's statement highlights the obstacles the bill faces in becoming law.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has expressed concerns about the bill scope and her chief legal counsel was the only one to speak against it during A heavily attended public hearing last month.

Mills has instead backed a bill that would give the tribes exclusive rights to mobile sports betting.

The tribes support the gaming bill, but say it's no substitute for the sovereignty bill that would limit the state's ability to regulate fishing and hunting on tribal lands; expand the jurisdiction of tribal courts to handle criminal offenses committed on tribal lands; and allow them to tax tribal members or entities on Indian lands.

The proposal now goes to full Legislature for votes.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.