Lawmakers resumed discussions Tuesday of proposals to overhaul the strained relations between Maine state government and tribal nations but appear unlikely to address the long-standing issues before next year.

Last year, members of a legislative committee voted in support of several bills viewed as potentially historic steps to recognize the sovereignty of the tribes in Maine. The bills dealt with a wide range of perennial issues – including taxation, gambling and criminal justice – based on the work of a task force examining ways to improve Maine’s unique but controversial 1980 settlement between the state and the tribes.

But the bills died after Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on reconvening during the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Janet Mills opted not to call lawmakers back to Augusta. So on Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee revived the discussions – albeit via a new bill – with a goal of completing work on the issue during the 2022 legislative session.

Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, said in a Facebook post that while the additional delay will frustrate some, “it is also an opportunity to keep our energy and collaboration around this important issue growing.”

Speaking to members of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Dana pointed out that the state initiated the extensive re-evaluation process and that “tribal chiefs came to the table in good faith.” Dana, whose official position within the Penobscot Nation was an outgrowth of worsening tribal-state relations, said she hopes that the Legislature will live up to an earlier pledge to overhaul a 1980 agreement that “has been used to oppress tribes and undermine tribal sovereignty.”

“We are very ready for a new dawn of tribal-state relations,” Dana told committee members, several of whom were not part of last year’s months-long discussion of the issue. “We need to think about abundance, not scarcity. We need to think about being sovereign nations and not municipalities. And we need to really think about healing this relationship in an authentic and good and genuine way. And the tribes are very much ready to do that.”

Tribal sovereignty – or a lack thereof – has been the dominant issue in the four decades since the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was signed into law in Washington, D.C. Intended to end land claims filed by the tribes in Maine, the 1980 settlement has instead led to decades of lawsuits between the tribes and the state.

Tribal leaders and their supporters say decades of governors and Maine legislatures have used the settlement to treat tribes more as municipalities than as sovereign nations. And, they say, that runs counter to Maine’s historic treaty obligations as well as federal law.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat who is lead sponsor of the latest bill, L.D. 1626, said it was appropriate for lawmakers to recognize and honor tribes and “affirm their inherent sovereignty in this territory.” Talbot Ross, House assistant majority leader, also called on her colleagues to remember the Wabanaki tribes “whose lives and land were taken through genocidal strategies of colonial settlement.”

“We pay respect to elders, both past and present, and we commit to the ongoing work of decolonization in Maine and beyond,” Talbot Ross said. “Yet it is not enough to simply say these words. We must take direct action as well. Our action, as lawmakers, requires the passage of L.D. 1626.”

The proposal states that the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians shall “enjoy rights, privileges, powers, duties and immunities similar to those of other federally recognized Indian tribes within the United States.” That recognition would include any “special status or right” granted to tribes, tribal lands or members under federal law.

Specifically, the bill recognizes that tribes have “exclusive jurisdiction” to regulate hunting and fishing of tribal members as well as non-Indians on tribal lands, although the state could continue to regulate tribal members off tribal lands in the interest of conservation.

On the issue of taxation, the bill would exempt tribal members from state sales taxes on tribal lands and would allow tribes to tax non-members on tribal lands. The proposal would also provide tribal courts broader jurisdiction on criminal matters, consistent with federal law.

It was unclear Tuesday, however, how lawmakers will deal with what has been a lightning rod of an issue in Maine in recent years: tribal gaming.

Unlike other federally recognized tribes across the country, tribes in Maine are prohibited by the 1980 agreement from establishing casinos or other gambling operations on tribal lands. Tribes have repeatedly sought authorization from the Legislature and from voters only to see their endeavors fail even as voters granted out-of-state casino operators licenses to open facilities in Bangor and Oxford.

Tribal members argue that prohibition prevented tribes and surrounding towns from benefiting from a type of economic development that has helped revitalize communities across the country. While L.D. 1626 explicitly says that the tribes “may not conduct gaming activities” under the federal law that authorizes other tribes to operate casinos, there are other bills pending in the Legislature that would grant that authority to Maine tribes.

The effort to overhaul Maine’s relationship with the tribes has the support of the top Democratic leadership in the Legislature, including House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

“To me it is simple: we have a real opportunity to right past wrongs and establish a strong relationship between the state and the tribes based on trust and shared understanding to avoid future conflict,” Jackson said on Tuesday. “For years, Maine has not done the right thing by the tribes. Talk of addressing inequality only goes so far. It is time to act.”

Representatives of numerous religious and environmental organizations also testified in support of the measure Tuesday. But the effort will inevitably encounter pushback from some groups.

Supporters will also have to win the approval of Gov. Janet Mills, who has taken numerous steps to improve tribal-state relations but who said last year that she was “deeply concerned” about provisions of that bill. A former attorney general whose legal office faced off against the tribes in court on numerous occasions, Mills warned that last year’s proposal could lead to additional disputes rather than resolve them.

The governor’s chief legal counsel, Jerry Reid, told lawmakers Tuesday that Mills “does have serious concerns” about the latest bill, as drafted. Reid did not provide specifics but said pushing off the bill until next year’s legislative session allows for more time to negotiate changes.

“In the meantime, we intend to continue to work to try to engage with the Legislature and individual legislators and also with tribal representatives in an effort to find common ground on the issues that are presented in this bill,” Reid said.


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