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Gov. Mills, Wabanaki leaders react to her veto of bill to benefit tribes

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.

Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a high-profile bill that aimed to allow Wabanaki tribes to access additional federal laws. The question now is whether tribal leaders and their allies can maintain enough support to override the governor.

In a six-page veto letter, Mills laid out a host of reasons why her administration opposes the latest push by Wabanaki leaders to change Maine's 1980 settlement act with the tribes. The bill's aim is to ensure that any laws passed by Congress to benefit other federally recognized tribes would also apply to the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and the Mi'kmaq Nation.

But in her letter and a subsequent interview, Mills criticized the bill as rushed, vague and filled with unintended consequences by creating uncertainty about whether state, tribal or federal regulations will apply on lands across Maine.

"It presents a very complicated series of provisions that in my view pose a very serious risk of conflict and litigation rather than collaboration and communication,” Mills said in an interview.

The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was supposed to resolve contentious land claims against the state filed by several tribes. It provided more than $80 million to tribes to purchase 300,000 acres across the state. But rather than end conflicts, the settlement has led to decades of lawsuits. And tribal leaders said language allowing the state to preempt federal laws on tribal lands has limited their access to federal programs that benefit other tribes.

"There have been 151 laws passed since 1980,” Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation said Friday afternoon. “The problem under the current paradigm is that we do not know which ones apply to us or do not apply to us until we try to access them."

The Mills administration has said that all but a handful of federal laws passed since 1980 already apply to the Wabanaki tribes. It also points to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding that have flowed to those tribal communities in recent years as proof of the benefits that flow to the tribes despite the 1980 law. Two of the most frequently cited issues surround the Stafford Act, which involves emergency relief and assistance, and the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act.

But Francis disagreed with the Mills administration's suggestions of only “a handful” of conflicting laws, pointing to the decades of legal battles with the state. He also said it was "disingenuous" for Mills to suggest that the bill was somehow rushed or contained new ideas. Instead, Francis said many of the provisions in the bill were discussed during debate over a broader tribal sovereignty bill that Mills also blocked during the last legislative session and during discussion of a similar federal bill proposed by Maine Congressman Jared Golden.

"This administration has no appetite to change the settlement act because they have stated over and over and over again that they cannot unilaterally change it back if it does not work for them,” Francis said. “And they have every interest in putting us under state law, which is just unacceptable to the tribes. And it's just not necessary."

But Mills said in her letter and an interview that she wants to work with tribal leaders to address specific issues. She also noted that administration has worked with the tribes to improve water quality on the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point, to change tax laws, to set among the nation’s most stringent protections in sustenance fishing waters, and to give tribes the exclusive ability to offer online sports betting in Maine.

"When specific problems are brought to our attention and people sit around the table and are able to address it, we can accomplish great progress. And we've done that," Mills said. “This administration has accomplished more progress with respect to tribal matters than any governor and any group of governors in the last 40 years."

But Chief Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Sipayik accused the Mills administration of “moving the goal posts” on the issue.

“Her office testified on her behalf in Congress, on Congressman Golden's legislation, that this issue should be dealt with in the state,” Newell said in a statement. “So we put in state legislation. Now she says this issue should be done by Congress. We can only conclude she wants nothing done on this issue."

The Wabanaki tribes have picked up broad public support in recent years for their push for greater self-government. And the votes on LD 2004 demonstrated the inroads that tribal leaders have made with legislators on both sides of the aisle. The bill passed the House and Senate by wide margins. But overriding a gubernatorial veto takes two-thirds support in both chambers. And that means supporters will need to keep pretty much every single one of the 100 votes the bill received in the House on initial passage.

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant said she believes the tribes have avoided being drawn into other State House battles by focusing on human rights and equity issues.

"I really want that good work to stand on its own and I hope the members will continue to work with us in good faith as we face this veto together," Bryant said.

The bill has created a rift between Maine’s Democratic governor and the state’s two top legislative leaders, not to mention put Mills at odds with many Democratic activists throughout the state,

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat who was the lead sponsor of the tribal bill, said in a statement that it's widely accepted that "the current status quo under the settlement act is unfair, unjust and inequitable."

“That is why a bipartisan, supermajority of the Legislature passed this bill and exactly why I will work tirelessly to harness that same group of legislators and override this veto,” Talbot Ross said in a statement.

Likewise, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, cast the issues as seeking to address “the legacy of injustice that exists to this day” for tribal communities in Maine.

“This veto is disappointing but unsurprising,” Jackson said in a statement. “With all due respect to the Chief Executive, the time has come and passed for us to rectify our laws and honor the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki Nations. At the very least, it’s time for the Wabanaki people to receive the federal benefits they deserve. I’m hopeful the Legislature will stay true to the original vote and proudly stand with the Wabanaki people — our neighbors and friends.

Mills, meanwhile, said she hopes legislators will read the bill, carefully consider the objections she raised in her six-page veto letter and not be swayed by what she said was hype or emotion.

"I could stick my finger in the wind and say which way the wind is blowing and just sign the bill. But that's not the responsible thing to do,” Mills said. “That's not what governing is about. That's not what policy making is about. it's about analyzing the issue, making sure you know what the problem is and you know how to address it."

The House and Senate could take up the veto during floor sessions next week.