The long struggle over the sovereignty rights of Maine’s indigenous nations resumed on two fronts Tuesday as legislators weigh competing proposals to reform a decades-old legal settlement that drastically constrained Maine tribes’ powers of self-government.

Lawmakers heard hours of public testimony from more than 100 attendees of the daylong virtual hearing, almost all of them in support of a sweeping reform bill that aims to remove all of the sovereignty restrictions imposed on Maine’s four Wabanaki tribes by the 1980 settlement acts, a pair of federal and state laws extinguished the tribes’ land claims to two-thirds of the state in exchange for $81.5 million. Under the settlement, Maine tribes have fewer sovereignty rights than all of the other 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

“The Wabanaki Nations have spent the past 40 years being treated like second-class sovereigns,” Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation told lawmakers. “We have watched out-of-state corporations come in and thrive by doing the very things that we should be able to do but for the settlement acts.”

One of the only people who came to testify in opposition to L.D. 1626 was Gerald Reid, legal counsel to Gov. Janet Mills, who has the power to veto the legislation if it passes the Democratically controlled House and Senate. Reid said the governor’s office would not support the bill as currently drafted and drew attention instead to a more narrowly targeted reform proposal that is now scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the same body, the Legislature’s judicial committee.

The text of that proposal – technically a proposed amendment to another bill intended to increase tribal powers, L.D. 585 – was shared with lawmakers Tuesday and provides a glimpse into the reforms Mills supports.

There is a wide difference between the approaches. L.D. 1626 sweeps away all the special restrictions Maine insisted the tribes accept in 1980, which effectively treated Maine’s tribes as municipalities rather than sovereign nations. This bill, which resulted from a special task force appointed by the Legislature in 2019, would make tribal territory subject to federal law, not state laws or municipal regulations, and ensure all federal laws designed to benefit tribes apply in Maine, which is not currently the case. It also would liberalize rules on where the tribes can buy additional land and end the tribes’ obligation to pay sales and property taxes on their territories.


“The state of Maine somehow thought that recognizing the full political existence of our tribal nations would somehow diminish us as a state,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, testified. “Whatever the cause for those feelings in 1980, they simply have not turned out to be true in Maine or in any other states.”


By contrast, the measure backed by the governor’s office makes small, carefully delineated reforms to the existing jurisdictional arrangements. The 34-page draft text, produced through ongoing negotiations with the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Houlton band of Maliseets, creates new information sharing processes within state government agencies, which would be required to engage in non-binding consultations with tribes about various policy matters that might effect them.

It would remove state sales taxes from certain goods and services produced and consumed on tribal territories, or give the revenues from those taxes to the tribes. Taxes on incomes earned by tribal members on their reservations would be lifted. And it would allow certain sports betting facilities to operate on tribal reservations.

Reid declined to speak further on the proposal and the governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry about what measures in the more sweeping L.D. 1626 were non-starters for her.

In his testimony, however, Francis, the Penobscot chief, made it clear the negotiations behind the governor’s package was in no way a replacement for the wider bill.


“It is my hope that those discussions will result in benefits for both the tribal and non-tribal communities,” Francis said. “However, I want to be clear that the Penobscot Nation does not view these discussions as a substitute or replacement of L.D. 1626, which is intended to modernize the state settlement act.”

Mills has declined interview requests about the more expansive bill. But in a February 2020 letter to legislators she warned it would allow the tribes to acquire land anywhere in the state to convert to trust land, removing it from state and local jurisdiction, including property taxes and labor, forestry, mining and air quality regulations. Because, under federal law, any changes to the settlement acts have to be agreed to by both the state and the tribes, Mills noted, the Legislature would not be able to undo any decisions lawmakers later regretted because of “unexpected negative consequences.”

The broader sovereignty bill also is opposed by a group of municipalities and sewer districts concerned about their potential loss of jurisdiction over properties the tribes have purchased, although the U.S. Department of Interior would have to agree to declare such properties to be “trust land” before they would fall under exclusive federal jurisdiction. Their attorney, Matt Manahan of Pierce Atwood, didn’t appear at Tuesday’s hearing, but submitted written testimony outlining concerns about the creation of multiple jurisdictions in the state, each with different land use, water, and natural resource laws.


But L.D. 1626 has the support of the top leadership in both chambers, with Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, among the bill’s co-sponsors. At Tuesday’s hearing, it received support from a broad range of environmental, religious, labor and social justice groups, and dozens of tribal members, businesspeople and ordinary citizens.

Unlike other federally recognized tribes, the 1980 settlement acts made Maine’s tribes subject to virtually all state laws. Instead of sovereign reservations, they would be given the powers of municipalities – to run schools and police departments, to enact zoning, build roads and receive state municipal aid. They would be entitled to govern their internal affairs and to set up tribal courts to rule on minor offenses between tribal members on tribal land, but would pay state taxes and accept state environmental, labor and gambling regulations. Maine can block federal Indian laws from applying to Maine’s tribes unless Congress specifically says otherwise.

State courts have decided what does and doesn’t count as an “internal tribal matter” under the acts. Courts have ruled the tribes have to provide their internal documents under public records laws, that they can’t conduct high-stakes Beano games on their reservations, and that the Penobscots’ island reservation doesn’t include the river waters that surround it.

To become law, L.D. 1626 would have to receive majority support in both the House and Senate and receive the signature of the governor. If Mills vetoes it instead, it would take a two-thirds majority of lawmakers to overturn it.

The hearing for the proposed amendments to L.D. 585 is scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday.

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