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Lawmakers uphold Gov. Mills' veto of Wabanaki rights legislation

Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

The Maine House has voted to uphold Gov. Janet Mills' veto of a bill that was a top priority for leaders of the Wabanaki Nation.

The 84-to-57 vote on Thursday was roughly a dozen votes short of the margin needed to override Mills' veto of a bill that aimed to give the four tribes in Maine access to additional federal laws and benefits.

Under a 1980 agreement, new laws passed by Congress to benefit federally recognized tribes do not automatically apply to the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Mi'kmaq Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. Tribal leaders say that preemption has harmed their communities economically. But Mills had warned that the bill would create confusion about whether state or tribal regulations applied on lands throughout Maine while predicting that the bill, LD 2004, would lead to more legal conflicts.

Headed into Thursday's vote, tribal leaders knew they had to protect the slimmest of margins on the bill, LD 2004. Last month, 100 House members had supported overturning a key provision in that 1980 legal agreement between the tribes and the state. But on Thursday as House lawmakers’ votes appeared on the vote board, it was clear even before House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross announced the result that they had fallen well short of the two-thirds majority needed to get around Mills, a Democrat who formerly served as Maine’s attorney general.

Moments later, several chiefs and other leaders of the Wabanaki tribes quietly hugged or shook hands with supporters after leaving the visitors balcony where they had watched the vote. Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis then paused briefly outside of the State House to say he and other leaders will need time to digest Thursday's vote just two weeks after receiving super-majority support in both chambers.

"So I think, you know, we are focused on the long haul,” Francis said. “It's disappointing and kind of a gut punch. But we'll try to pick ourselves back up here and figure out where we are going."

The bill, LD 2004, aimed to flip the current paradigm by making it so that any federal law passed by Congress automatically applied to the four Wabanaki tribes unless they were explicitly excluded. Wabanaki leaders say that state preemption is unpredictable and has held their communities back economically. And they say there is no longer a good reason that the four tribes in Maine should be treated differently than the 570 other federally recognized tribes around the country.

But in her veto letter and during an interview last week, Mills criticized the bill as vague and poorly worded and said it would cause more problems than it would solve.

"I think there's no question there are unintended consequences to this bill,” Mills said in a Friday interview. “And they are pretty much irreversible if this bill becomes law. It will create more conflict, more litigation and that will be unfortunate for all of the people of Maine."

Since taking office in 2019, Mills has worked closely with tribal representatives to strengthen water quality standards in sustenance fishing waters and to provide tax benefits to tribal members. And last year, the administration negotiated a deal with the tribes that gave them the exclusive right to offer online sports betting in Maine. But Mills only signed that bill after it was clear that lawmakers would allow a broader tribal sovereignty measure that she opposed to essentially die on the legislative vine.

Mills reiterated her pledge again Thursday to work with Wabanaki leaders and Maine’s congressional delegation to address specific conflicts between state and federal laws.

“I truly believe we can accomplish the intended goals of LD 2004 by following this same collaborative, respectful approach that led to previous successes and ultimately deliver greater benefits for Tribal communities while avoiding the confusion and litigation that would have resulted from LD 2004,” Mills said in a statement after the vote.

But speaking on the House floor, Passamaquoddy Rep. Aaron Dana accused the governor of using "dangerous and misleading" language in her veto message. He also pushed back against statements from Mills and bill opponents that the process was rushed.

"The governor and the AG can say that they have not had time to study the issue enough but that is because they do not want to study the issue,” Dana said. “They complain about the process and they know that this legislation has been developed over years. They have had plenty of time."

But opponents suggested that allowing the bill to become law could create huge uncertainties over environmental regulations in and around the hundreds of thousands of acres of land the tribes own in Maine. Rep. Jessica Poirier, a Skowhegan Republican who served on the Judiciary Committee that reviewed the bill, said the bill would have "irreversible" consequences because any effort to revise the 1980 agreement again would require the approval of all four Wabanaki tribes.

"And I think we all owe it to ourselves to really understand that any decision made with the 1980 settlement act is permanent,” Poirier said. “There will be no coming back to the table to change things. Once it's done, it's done. And we have to look out not only for the tribes but for all the rest of Maine."

Ultimately, 12 Republicans and 1 Democrat who supported the bill two weeks ago sided with the governor on Thursday and voted to uphold her veto. The outcome also highlighted the division between Mills and the Legislature’s Democratic leadership.

Talbot Ross, who sponsored the bill and has been a leading advocate on tribal sovereignty issues, pledged to keep focusing on the issue alongside Wabanaki leaders.

“The current status quo under the Settlement Act is unfair, unjust and inequitable,” Talbot Ross said in a statement. “Yet again, today in the Maine Legislature we allowed it to go unchanged. It is a deeply shameful moment that didn't have to happen and originated with a veto action from an Administration that seems determined to hold back progress for the Wabanaki Nation. While today we will admit disappointment at the outcome, we won’t admit defeat.”

Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians said it is question of not “if” but “when” the tribes’ concerns are addressed.

“We now have bipartisan support in both chambers to build off for the future,” Sabattis said in a statement. “We came up just shy today but we're not going away. Governor Mills is out of step with Mainers on tribal issues. If the Settlement Act doesn't change while she's Governor, we're confident the next Chief Executive will be with us.”

And Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant added: “For hundreds of years, we have fought for our survival and identity. And we will continue to do so. Patience and determination are nothing new to us. Waiting a few more years for a new Governor is what we will do if we must. We were here long before Governor Mills and we will be here long after she leaves office.”