© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lawmakers leave town without voting on tribal sovereignty bill, leaving its fate unclear

Maggie Dana, Rachel Talbot Ross
Robert F. Bukaty
Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, gets emotional while speaking with tribal members including Chief Maggie Dana of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, left, following the House passage of a bill at the State House in Augusta, Maine, that allows the tribes to regulate their own drinking water and other water-related issues on Tuesday, April 12, 2022.

The fate of a tribal sovereignty bill remains unclear in Augusta, although supporters aren't giving up on a measure that is the top priority for tribal leaders in the state.

State lawmakers returned home to their districts late Monday night without taking action on the bill that seeks to overhaul the complex and turbulent relationship between state government and Indian tribes in Maine. But the tribal sovereignty bill is still technically alive and could come up for a vote when lawmakers return for a veto session on May 9.

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills urged lawmakers to hold onto it rather than cause a "confrontation" with her. That veto threat still shrouds the bill's future because supporters failed to secure veto-proof margins during initial House and Senate votes. So House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said Monday night that lawmakers will let tribal leaders decide on whether to vote to send the bill to Mills anyway, or let it quietly expire when the Legislature finally adjourns next month.

"I think throughout this process we have been focused on self-determination for the tribes, and I think this falls into that same category,” Fecteau said. “We want the tribes to be able to practice self-determination and we want them to be able to tell us how to proceed."

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 could have allowed one of the highest-profile bills of the legislative sessions to quietly die on the vine without a vote. Such a move would also allow Mills, a Democrat running for re-election this November, to avoid 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 in her letter, which was made public on Monday. “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.”

Tribal leaders had not indicated their preference as of late Monday.

But lawmakers did give final approval earlier in the day to a bill that would grant the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians the exclusive right to offer online sports betting in Maine. Mills negotiated that bill, LD 585, which also grants tribes sales tax exemptions and requires state agencies to designate liaisons to consult with the tribes on policy issues. Mills also signed into law another bill, LD 906, that grants the Passamaquoddy Tribe the ability to locate a new drinking water source on tribal lands to resolve decades of problems with unpalatable and potentially unsafe water from the existing source.

Fecteau said he believes everyone wants to end on a positive note.

"We've made a lot of progress over the last three years as it relates to the tribes and have worked on a lot of important issues,” Fecteau said. “I think both the tribes, the state Legislature, the legislative branch and the executive branch want to see that progress continue to be made."

Mills has 10 days to sign, veto or allow the latest batch of bills to become law without her signature.