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With latest bill likely to fail, Maine tribes vow to keep pushing for sovereignty

Native Americans marching in support of one of several tribal sovereignty bills pass by the governor's mansion on April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. On Monday, April 18, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt the Penobscot Indian Nation a blow by rejecting its appeal over ownership and regulation of the tribe's namesake river.
David Sharp
Native Americans marching in support of one of several tribal sovereignty bills pass by the governor's mansion on April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. On Monday, April 18, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt the Penobscot Indian Nation a blow by rejecting its appeal over ownership and regulation of the tribe's namesake river.

Leaders of Maine's Native American tribes say a sweeping bill that would restore their sovereignty is unlikely to become law, but that they’ll continue pushing for the same status as more than 500 other federally recognized tribes.

The detailed letter from the tribal chiefs cited the unlikelihood that the sovereignty bill has enough votes in the Legislature to overcome a near-certain veto by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

The tribal leaders also noted that Mills had vowed to work with them further on specific issues, including health, education and jurisdictional concerns.

Democratic legislative leaders last week stalled the sovereignty bill at the governor's request, but said they would push it to her desk if the tribes asked them to.

That push appears unlikely now. Avoiding an enactment vote will also spare Mills vetoing the measure, an outcome she described last week in a letter to lawmakers and the tribes as potentially damaging "a constructive relationship."

“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."

Mills outlined some of her opposition to the sovereignty bill, LD 1626, in the same letter. She worried 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.

The governor's letter prompted lawmakers to withhold the roughly $42,000 in funding for the sovereignty bill, and with that, stall one of the most high-profile bills of the legislative session.

It also raised questions about the future of a sovereignty movement that has blossomed over the past four years after decades of litigation and conflict. Mills was often involved in those legal disputes as the state's Attorney General.

She vowed to take steps to repair that relationship when she became governor in 2019. Her efforts were bolstered by Democratic legislative majorities, as lawmakers framed sovereignty as a moral and civil rights issue. The push by lawmakers also put them at odds with Mills, who continued to express concerns with the sovereignty bill.

On Tuesday, Tribal leaders acknowledged the legislative efforts, which included a legislative task force to review the 40-year-old agreement that has denied Maine's tribes the same rights as their counterparts across the U.S. The task force's review included recommendations that became key provisions of the sovereignty bill.

"The dialogue and legislative activity surrounding sovereignty restoration is beyond what some of us imagined," they wrote. "When the Legislature first created the bipartisan task force, several of the tribal chiefs were not sure it was worth our time. In fact, some of us considered not participating in the process because there were task forces in the past that failed to lead to any progress. But, the task force process, L.D. 2094, and L.D. 1626 have generated a level of support far beyond what any of us expected."

Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, indicated this week that they would advance the bill if the tribes asked them to, even though doing so might jeopardize the governor's support of a another bill that would give the tribes exclusive rights to mobile sports betting, exempt the tribes as well as tribal members from sales taxes for goods or services used on tribal lands, and require state agencies to designate a “tribal liaison” to encourage collaboration with the tribes.

Tribal leaders noted that the request for procedural guidance from legislative leaders was unprecedented.

"We have never been asked before. So, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place," they wrote.

Tribal leaders said they are disappointed that Mills still has reservations about the bill. They also acknowledged that the votes aren't there to override a veto. While most Democrats support the measure, it has garnered few Republican votes. A two-thirds vote by the House and Senate would be required to override a veto and Democratic majorities are well short of that threshold.

"So, while we have made significant and concrete progress in moving the needle, there is still more work to be done," tribal leaders wrote. "Time is on our side. Our people have lived with the negative consequences of the settlement act for over 40 years. However, we have made more progress in our sovereignty restoration efforts in the past four years than we did in the previous several decades."

They added, "Our fight for sovereignty restoration will not end today. We want the conversation to continue and we will press forward to engage more Mainers on these issues."

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