AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature has ended years of opposition and given initial approval to a bill that would enable four Native American tribes in Maine to establish gambling businesses on their lands.

The Maine House of Representatives approved the bill on a 97-40 vote just after 2 a.m. Thursday and the Senate, with no debate, voted 22-13 in the afternoon.

The bill needs the signature of Gov. Janet Mills, who has promoted her efforts over the past two years to repair the state’s frayed relationship with the Wabanaki, whose tribes include the Maliseet, the Micmac, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot. Those efforts have borne some fruit, but it’s unclear whether Mills will support the gambling legislation.

Approval of the bill followed an early morning floor speech by Rep. Rena Newell, a non-voting member of the Legislature who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Newell urged her colleagues to move the bill forward.

“While the focus of this bill is gaming, this is a small piece of the puzzle for the tribes in Maine,” Newell said, noting that she was following in the footsteps of her great, great grandfather, who addressed the Legislature in 1887. “While more than a century has passed, our tribe faces similar circumstances yet today,” Newell said. She said her great, great grandfather Lewis Mitchell, “highlighted a litany of broken treaties and promises that resulted in my people living in poverty-ridden communities.”

“Our ancestors watched from inside the bounds of our reservation as non-tribal members got rich from cutting down our trees on our land, leaving us with little,” Newell said. She said her people now watch the operation of privately owned and operated casinos in Maine that send their profits to out-of-state investors.

“This is happening while tribal nations in Maine, unlike all other federally recognized tribes across this country, do not have the opportunity to truly engage in governmental gaming operations,” Newell said.

The gambling legislation was carved out of another bill that has been carried over to the 2022 legislative session that seeks to make a series of 22 changes to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. If enacted, the changes would restore much of the sovereignty that tribal leaders say they lost 40 years ago.

The 1980 law ended a legal battle over ownership of roughly two-thirds of Maine’s land while providing the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians with $81.5 million to purchase about 300,000 acres and invest in their communities.

But the settlement also led to decades of jurisdictional fights and sovereignty disputes over environmental regulation, fishing rights – and gambling.

Tribes in Maine have repeatedly tried and failed to win approval from voters or legislators to open casinos. Yet even as Maine voters rejected tribal attempts to open casinos, they approved two separate referendum questions that led to the creation of the Hollywood Casino in Bangor and Oxford Casino in western Maine.

Both casinos are run by large corporations – Penn National in Bangor and Churchill Downs in Oxford – and are regulated by the Maine Gambling Control Board.

Lawmakers speaking in opposition to the bill, L.D. 554, Thursday said that they worry about whether restoring tribal gambling rights would lead to the tribes being able to purchase land in the state’s metropolitan areas and open casinos there. The bill would essentially amend the 1980 land claims settlement to allow the tribes to operate gambling businesses under the terms of federal law.

“I have major reservations about expanding tribal sovereignty in the areas of gaming and mining,” said Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk. “My fear, my worst-case scenario, is that the bill before us allows big out-of-state casino operators to carve up Maine into gambling fiefdoms on Indian purchased land across the state, from which the state of Maine will have not authority to protect itself.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, said it may be possible for a tribe to purchase land and put it in a tribal trust that could qualify for a casino, but that was a “long process” and “not easy.”

The gambling bill also will have to gain the support of Mills, who has taken numerous steps to improve tribal-state relations since taking office in 2019. But in May, her chief legal adviser, Jerry Reid, told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that the administration had “serious concerns” about a bill seeking to restore or reinstate tribal rights.

That bill by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, stated 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.”

“Our hope and intent was to work with tribal representatives in an effort to negotiate amendments to these bills or an alternative bill that could be something we could support,” Reid said in May. “Those efforts have not borne fruit at this point.”

Mills’ spokesperson, Lindsay Crete, said Thursday that the governor would review the tribal gambling bill when it arrives on her desk but didn’t indicate whether Mills supported the measure or not.

“She has 10 days to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without her signature,” Crete said.

In other action Thursday, the Legislature:

• Gave final approval to a bill that asks voters to approve the creation of a consumer owned electricity utility that would take over Central Maine Power and Versant Power. Mills has been critical of the measure and seems likely to veto it.

• Approved a bill that eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanor crimes.

• Passed a measure that decriminalizes possession of illicit drugs. The bill would allow up to a $100 fine and changes drug possession from a crime to a civil violation.

• Gave initial approval to a bill that would allow online sports betting. The measure, approved on a 23-12 vote in the Senate, would require online sports books to be electronically tethered to one of Maine’s two casinos or to one of its six off-track-betting parlors. The bill faced additional votes later Thursday.


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