AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill Wednesday that would have allowed Native American tribes in Maine to open casinos or other gambling businesses on their tribal lands.

The bill, approved by the Legislature in June, would have ended years of state government opposition to allowing tribes in Maine to open casinos as a means of economic development.

In a lengthy, four-page veto message, Mills detailed her efforts to repair the state’s frayed relationship with the Wabanaki, whose tribes include the Maliseet, the Micmac, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot.

But Mills said the bill, which would have restored federal gaming rights that were stripped from the tribes in a 1980 law that settled a land dispute between the tribes and the state, was fraught with problems.

“This bill provides no predictability or meaningful limitations on where tribal gaming may occur, or on the size of each facility,” Mills wrote. “The tribal gaming facilities that the legislation would authorize could be large or small, anything from a grand casino to a few slot machines in a convenience store, and the state and adjacent non-tribal communities would have little or no influence over their placement. ”

Leaders from the four tribes reacted harshly to the veto in a prepared statement issued shortly after the Mills administration released the veto message.

“Governor Mills provides lip service to wanting to engage on tribal issues. However, if she thought they were important she would meet with tribal leaders to discuss updating the (1980) Settlement Act more than two times over the last two years. Governor Mills missed a great opportunity to catch up with the other states that work with the other 570 federally recognized tribes,” said Chief Maggie Dana of Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point.

Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation offered some praise for the Legislature and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey. “We appreciate the time and energy the legislators from both parties, legislative staff, the attorney general and his staff have put into tribal issues,” Francis said. “They have shown true dedication to working in a collaborative fashion with the tribes even when we don’t see eye to eye.”

Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet said Mills had sided with existing gambling interests from out of state instead of with rural Maine people.

“The proceeds from tribal gaming stay in rural Maine and are not sent out to corporate headquarters in Kentucky and Pennsylvania,” Sabattis said.

Chief Charlie Peter-Paul of the Aroostook Band of Micmac criticized Mills for not recognizing the broad support the bill received in the Legislature when it passed.

“The tribes are merely asking to be able to determine their communities’ futures,” Peter-Paul said. “They should have that right on their native lands. The Legislature understands this. The people of Maine understand this. The governor and the large corporate gaming operations in Maine clearly don’t.”

In her message, Mills said Maine’s two existing casinos in Bangor and Oxford, which are owned and operated by private companies based in Kentucky and Pennsylvania and were approved by voters in statewide referenda, did not gain support or approval until details of their locations and operations were vetted publicly.

“Maine’s existing casinos were approved only when it was clearly understood where they would be located, what they would look like, and whether there was strong local support for them to open,” she wrote.

Mills also noted the state could be putting at risk the $17 million a year those two casinos pay to the state as part of the laws that set them up, if tribal gaming operations siphon off business from the casinos.

Mills also wrote that she had asked that the bill be withdrawn so the state could work with the tribes on gambling legislation that she could support, but supporters pressed ahead with the legislation.

But Chief Bill Nichols of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township said Maine’s tribes were simply asking to be treated like the other 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

“This is a matter of fairness,” Nichols said. “One the governor doesn’t seem to comprehend or wish to invest the time to comprehend.”

The bill, which was passed in the early morning hours of June 17, received strong bipartisan support in the Legislature and was approved in the House 97-40 and in the Senate 22-13. But neither vote reaches the two-thirds threshold that would be needed to override the veto.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, said the bill was modeled after laws in other states that have worked successfully for decades.

“This wasn’t something the tribes created out of the air,” Collings said. “We just felt we did our homework and tried to offer an option for the state and tribes that already exists in states all around the country. Why wouldn’t we want to have that success story happen in Maine?”

The gambling legislation was carved out of another bill that has been carried over to the 2022 legislative session that seeks to make 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.

The Legislature will likely take a vote on overriding the veto when it returns to work Thursday afternoon.

 

 


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