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With Maine Legislature's veto vote looming, Wabanaki leaders working hard to shore up support

Kirk Francis, Chief of the Penobscot Nation, addresses the Legislature, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Kirk Francis, Chief of the Penobscot Nation, addresses the Legislature, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

State lawmakers could vote later this week on whether to override a gubernatorial veto of a bill that is a top priority for the Wabanaki tribes.

Gov. Janet Mills had been warning for weeks that a bill giving tribes in Maine access to additional federal laws could cause legal and regulatory uncertainties. So when the expected veto letter finally arrived late last week, Wabanaki leaders and their allies began ramping up their efforts to lock down the supermajority votes that would be needed to override Mills.

The bill received initial approval in the Maine House on a vote of 100-47, so supporters can barely afford to lose any votes to surpass the two-thirds threshold. That vote could happen as early as this Thursday as lawmakers reconvene to wrap up the 2023 legislative session.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said last week that he knows the Legislature has had "a bruising couple of weeks" dealing with other, partisan issues. Those issues include emotional policy and procedural fights over a controversial abortion expansion bill that was spearheaded by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, who is also the lead sponsor of the bill important to the Wabanaki Nation. But Francis said he hopes the tribes' bill, LD 2004, will stand on its own.

"I think a vote against the tribes on this override does nothing ... except give the governor a victory lap and hurt the tribes,” Francis said. “The tribes will be the only ones hurt in that process. So I hope people stay with us and I'm confident that they will. We are going to work hard over the next few days to make sure we are convincing folks this is the right thing to do. I believe it's good for Maine, I believe it's good for our relationship. I believe it's good for Maine's rural communities."

The bill aims 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. Under the terms of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, tribal governments received more than $80 million to purchase more than 300,000 acres in Maine in exchange for ending their legal land claims against the state. But as part of that agreement, many state laws and regulations preempt federal laws on tribal lands in Maine.

That preemption has led to decades of tensions and legal battles between the tribes and the state over environmental regulations, sustenance fishing and whether the tribes could access certain federal programs. Tribal leaders say those policies have hurt their communities economically when compared to many of the other 570-plus federally recognized tribes that do not have to live under such restrictions. But the Mills administration has argued that the 1980 agreement has only preempted handful of federal laws and that passage of LD 2004 would create massive uncertainty over which rules and regulations would apply on lands scattered throughout Maine.

“Like many Maine people, I do not want to see the Wabanaki Nations unfairly excluded from benefits that are generally available to Federally recognized tribes,” Mills wrote in her six-page veto letter. “I believe the interest we share to do right by the Wabanaki Nations and Maine people must be accomplished through legislation that is clear, thoroughly vetted and well understood by all parties. Unfortunately, I do not believe that LD 2004 achieves these important standard and I fear it would result in years, if not decades, of new, painful litigation that would exacerbate our government-to-government relationship and only further divide the state and our people.”

Speaking with reporters late last week, Francis accused Mills and certain corporate entities of putting out “a lot of scare tactics and ‘what ifs’” during the debate over LD 2004.

“So we are disappointed in her veto,” Francis said. “It was expected. But at the end of the day, I am confident in our friends and allies to make sure that we continue to work hard to get this over the finish line.”

Mills has pledged to work with the tribes and Maine’s congressional delegation to address specific conflicts between state and federal law.