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Wounds old — and new — spotlighted in historic tribal address to Maine Legislature

William Nicholas, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, addresses a joint session of the Maine Legislature on March 16, 2023.
Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
William Nicholas, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, addresses a joint session of the Maine Legislature on March 16, 2023.

Collaboration, self-determination and progress.

Those were the overarching themes from tribal leaders Thursday when they each spoke to a joint session of the Maine Legislature for just the second State of the Tribes address in state history. In many ways the address mirrored the first one that took place 21 years ago. This time, however, the tribes addressed state lawmakers who are far more receptive to their main goal — greater self-governance — than the legislators who preceded them.

Donna Loring, a former tribal representative from the Penobscot Nation, acknowledged that shift as she watched the address as a guest for Maine Public’s broadcast of the event. However, when asked by host Jennifer Rooks how things have changed since the last time the tribes spoke to the Legislature, Loring offered a sobering assessment.

“The issue that we face every year — every other year, I guess — is basically that if one branch of government supports us and works with us, another branch goes against us,” she said.

Loring’s remarks were a reference to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. The governor was not mentioned during the tribal leaders’ speeches and she did not attend them in-person, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict. By contrast, tribal leaders repeatedly thanked Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Senate President Troy Jackson and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who attended the event Thursday.

But Mills remains a central figure in the furthering, or hindering, of the tribes’ main objective: overhauling a 1980 settlement agreement that the tribes view as restrictive and paternalistic, especially when compared to the rights of more than 500 federally recognized tribes across the U.S.

Wabanaki Nations' State Of The Tribes Address

In Mills’ view, the Wabanaki have made more progress in the “past four years than the past 40” and they’ve done so with her help. She supported or helped negotiate bills that created the nation’s strictest environmental standards on waterways used for tribal sustenance fishing, granted tribes exclusive access to offer online sports betting in Maine, banned Indian mascots in Maine schools and exempted tribal members from some state taxes.

However, last year the governor used two of those advancements as leverage to block a sweeping bill that the tribes viewed as finally delivering self-governance parity with their counterparts in other states.

Tribal leaders have not forgotten. While they’ve expressed a willingness to work with the Mills administration to change sections of the settlement agreement, they’ve also made it clear that they will not give up on more sweeping changes to it. Absent a bipartisan coalition in the Legislature that can bypass a gubernatorial veto, Mills, recently elected to second term, stands in the way of that goal.

“We are capable of self-governance, and should be treated as partners rather than threats to the future of this state,” Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said during his speech. “We want a relationship with the state government that is based on mutual trust, fidelity and respect.”

While Mills did not attend the address, she invited tribal leaders to meet with her afterwards. They declined.

Loring, who briefly served as Mills’ senior advisor on tribal affairs, described the governor’s absence as “disrespectful to the chiefs.”

Passamaquoddy tribal historian Donald Soctomah, who joined Loring as a guest on the Maine Public broadcast, said it would have been a “step forward” if Mills had attended.

“The whole state of Maine would have seen this and would have looked for a brighter future, a relationship that we're really working towards,” he said. “And I think that's important, the visual part of it.”

Asked what she thought of the governor’s invitation to meet with her after the tribal address, Loring saw another affront.

“What I think of that is she's sending the message that I'm willing to hear you on my terms. I'm not going to go and listen to what you have to say in the House, under the House's terms. But you come to my office, and maybe we can talk,” she said. “To me that’s a controlling element. And the tribes are, I don't believe, interested in that sort of dialogue.”

Budget progress?

The Legislature has until June 30 to enact a new two-year budget to avoid a government shutdown, but that hasn’t stopped speculation that Democrats, who control the House and Senate, could move quickly to pass a budget without Republican support.

Passing a so-called majority budget would undoubtedly anger Republicans, just as it did when Democrats passed one in 2021. It also means that Democrats will need to do it before April 1. That’s because they don’t have the votes to pass it as an emergency, which would allow the spending plan to take effect immediately after the governor signs it. A majority budget would go into effect 90 days after the governor signs it.

As usual, coalescing around a bipartisan spending plan has come with a fair amount of rhetorical posturing. The governor has participated in some of that while responding to Republican calls for an income tax cut and to honor a nearly 20-year-old law that caps spending when the state provides 55% of local education costs, which it has. She has called on Republicans to identify spending cuts to meet their stated goals.

“If Republicans want to renege on the commitments they previously supported, then the Governor believes they have an obligation to the people of Maine to clearly state what programs and services they want to cut from the proposed budget,” a governor’s spokesperson told the Portland Press Herald recently.

Asked about the progress in budget talks, House minority leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said he’s still committed to a bipartisan deal.

“I think we’re working on a two-thirds budget, I honestly do,” said Faulkingham, referring to the supermajority support that would be needed to pass the budget as an emergency.

Faulkingham also said Republicans are still seeking an income tax, although he steered clear of providing any details of the GOP’s proposal.

Mills jabs concept drafts

There have been a lot of complaints about the unusually high number of placeholder bills, or concept drafts, this legislative session, mostly from organizations and interests groups in the business influencing legislation. Mills doesn’t appear super thrilled with them, either.

This week the governor unexpectedly joined Maine Public’s Maine Calling program to weigh in on efforts to restore parole for incarcerated people. The purpose of her call was mostly to provide background about the elimination of parole and to defend her corrections commissioner, Randy Liberty, who is facing criticism from restorative justice advocates for opposing a bill that would restore a system that would allow incarcerated people to be released before the end of their sentence if approved by a parole board.

As it happens, that proposal is a concept draft, meaning it has no language outlining its provisions or how it would interact with existing law. That language was introduced as an amendment a few days before the hearing, but it’s not available via a simple search of the bill, L.D. 178.

“It was an amendment that was posted just last Thursday, so people were testifying at great length and very passionately about a bill that hasn't even been made public yet,” Mills said when she called into Maine Calling.

Mills’ complaint mirrors others about the proliferation of concept drafts. Nevertheless, there has been some progress on concept drafts since Maine Public began reporting about them. Legislative leaders recently instructed committee chairs not to schedule public hearings on concept drafts unless the sponsor introduces an amendment beforehand.

That directive is helpful, but not perfect. That’s because the amendments are often only available to people who sign up for committee’s “interested parties” email lists or who happen to be in the room and are quick enough to snatch a printed copy. Occasionally committee clerks will post the amendment on the legislative website.

Special election set

A special election will be held June 13 to fill the vacant Maine House seat in District 45, which covers part of Waldo County.

The election was called by the governor following the resignation of former Rep. Clinton Collamore, D-Waldboro, after he was indicted over allegations that he forged signatures to obtain public campaign funds through the Maine Clean Election program.

The Bangor Daily News reported that former Reps. Abden Simmons, R-Waldoboro, and Wendy Pieh, D-Bremen, are expected to vie for the vacancy, although that will be determined by party caucuses sometime before March 31. Independent candidates have until the same date to submit signatures from 50 registered voters in the district to qualify for the ballot.

The special election will be a chance for Republicans to ever so slightly chip into Democrats’ House majority. The GOP has an advantage in registered voters in District 45, but Democrats have been more successful in special elections, including in several swing districts, over the past six years.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and State House correspondent Kevin Miller, and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

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