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Tribal sovereignty bill has unclear fate after Mills reiterates her opposition

Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe (right) leads several people dancing around a drum circle on Wednesday during a rally held at the State House by leaders of Wabanaki Nations in Maine.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe (right) leads several people dancing around a drum circle on Wednesday during a rally held at the State House by leaders of Wabanaki Nations in Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills is urging lawmakers not to pass a tribal sovereignty bill, saying she wants to avoid a “confrontation” over the issue as her administration continues to work with tribal leaders.

Mills outlined some of her opposition to the bill, LD 1626, in a letter sent Thursday to tribal leaders as well as top-ranking officials in the Legislature. The letter came one day before members of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee opted not to set aside $44,650 of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus to cover the costs of implementing the legislation.

That procedural decision means that one of the highest-profile bills of the legislative sessions could quietly die on the vine when the Legislature adjourns later Monday. It would also avoid Mills, a Democrat, from having to veto a measure that is the top priority of tribal members and that has drawn widespread support, particularly among Democratic and progressive groups and activists.

“I do not wish to have a confrontation over LD 1626,” Mills wrote. “It would serve no constructive purpose and only inflame emotions on all sides of the discussion, while likely harming the positive and constructive relationship we have worked so hard to build. To help us continue to move forward, I ask that LD 1626 remain with the Legislature and that LD 585 be enacted into law while we continue our work together on areas of mutual concern.”

The fate of the sovereignty bill remains unclear Monday afternoon. The bill was tabled in the Maine Senate on Monday but could be brought up again later in the day. But after a highly public, months-long campaign to pass LD 1626, negotiations over the measure have largely moved behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, the Senate gave final approval to the other bill that Mills mentioned in her letter – LD 585, which would give the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians exclusive rights to offer online sports betting in Maine. The bill, which Mills negotiated with tribal leaders, would also exempt those tribes as well as tribal members from sales taxes for goods or services used on tribal lands and requires state agencies to designate a “tribal liaison” to encourage collaboration with the tribes.

The sovereignty bill would result in more far-reaching changes, however, and tribal leaders have made clear in the past that the online gambling measure is not a substitute for LD 1626.

The result of a years of negotiations with tribal leaders, the bill would give the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians more control over land use, taxation, criminal justice, environmental regulations and hunting and fishing on tribal lands. The bill seeks to overhaul a 1980 agreement that tribal leaders say has allowed the state to treat their communities as municipalities rather than sovereign governments, and has denied tribes in Maine access to more than 150 federal laws that apply to more than 500 other tribes nationwide.

In her letter, Mills pointed to her administration’s work with the tribes to “make significant strides” on issues, including: implementing the nation’s most stringent environmental standards on waters that are important to tribal communities, banning the use of Native American mascots in Maine schools and the creation of Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

But Mills, who often clashed with the tribes in Maine during her time as attorney general, said the sovereignty bill could lead to more uncertainty and litigation. Among her concerns, Mills said the bill would allow tribes to acquire new territory anywhere in the state and would remove nearly 300,000 acres of tribal trust land from any state or local regulation. Mills wrote that she believes additional progress could be made on a bill introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-District 2, that seeks to ensure that any new federal laws related to federally recognized tribes also apply to tribes in Maine.

“However, I recognize the Tribes’ desire to see LD 1626 become law, just as I hope that the Tribes and lawmakers recognize that my concerns about the legislation are based in policy – and are not personal – and that my fears are that it would yield years, if not decades, of new, painful litigation that would only divide the state further,” Mills wrote.