A bill to rewrite a decades-old legal settlement and restore sovereignty to Maine’s indigenous people narrowly won the endorsement of a legislative committee Tuesday, sending the measure to the full Legislature with competing recommendations.

The bill would implement the recommendations of a special commission established to examine tribal sovereignty for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs (or Mi’kaq). It would effectively rewrite a historic land claims settlement that denied the tribes the same rights to self government that are granted to other federally recognized tribes across the country.

Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, described the bill as “the civil rights issue of our era in Maine.”

“I will be proud to support this bill for that reason,” Sanborn said.

The bill, L.D. 1626, was sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and was amended and endorsed by the Judiciary Committee in an 8-6 vote Tuesday afternoon. It was opposed by one Democratic member who is recommending additional amendments and by all of the Republican committee members, who held a brief caucus before the vote but did not explain their opposition.

During the work session, Republicans questioned a range of details, including the impacts of tax changes and expanded tribal jurisdiction in court matters and conservation and wildlife management, and whether tribes could regulate wastewater discharges from municipalities upstream of tribal territory.


The bill, if it passes in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, also faces the threat of a veto by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who favors more limited reforms.

The sweeping bill, which follows years of tension between the state and the tribes and has been debated for two years because of pandemic-related delays, aims to remove all sovereignty restrictions imposed on Maine tribes by the 1980 settlement acts, a pair of federal and state laws that erased 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 570 other federally recognized tribes in the United States. Here, tribes are treated more like municipalities, rather than as sovereign nations.

The bill drew more than 100 supporters during a daylong public hearing last month. And supporters, which include a broad range of environmental, religious, labor and social justice groups, mounted an aggressive lobbying push at the State House last week when the Legislature was in session, holding signs and casually talking to lawmakers.


The bill is opposed by the Mills administration, which has offered a more limited proposal negotiated with tribal leaders. The Judiciary Committee will take up that bill, an amended version of L.D. 585, on Wednesday.


The governor’s bill would allow tribes to participate in mobile and in-person sports betting – something that Maine’s two established casinos oppose, since they are prohibited from offering such betting. It also would remove sales taxes from certain goods and services produced and consumed on tribal territories or give the revenues from those taxes to the tribes, and lift state taxes on incomes earned by tribal members on their reservations.

L.D. 1626 would greatly enhance the tribes’ powers over land use, natural resources, environmental measures, taxation and other matters on tribal land, and has had the support of the top Democratic leadership in both chambers, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford.

State laws, with the exception of gambling, would no longer apply, not only on reservations, but also on trust land, which is owned by the tribes for tribal use and benefit, and is subject to federal laws.

The bill also would exempt tribes from paying state or local sales taxes on their respective territories and would exempt members from paying income taxes, under certain conditions. Those conditions include that the income is earned on or from activities on or sourced to their territory, and that a tribal member or his or her business is based in that territory.


Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, voted against Talbot Ross’ bill as amended. Instead, he said he would offer an alternative proposal that would incorporate certain elements of the bill dealing with taxation, criminal and civil jurisdictions of tribes, and a consultation process set up between tribes and the state government. However, he opposed a proposed expansion of the areas where tribes could acquire land and put it in trust.


And, while the committee analyst said that any gambling facilities would still be regulated by state law, Babbidge said he believed the bill could expand gambling in Maine. When asked for details, Babbidge said he would follow-up with the analyst.

“What has been proposed to us has won me over with regards to several elements of what we have talked about today,” Babbidge said. “I will be voting for a more limited geography. I have issues about expanding gaming in the state.”

Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland, acknowledged the bill faces an uphill battle in the Legislature, especially amid the prospect of a gubernatorial veto, which would require a two-thirds vote to overcome.

“If we manage to pass 1626 to the floor and by some miraculous circumstance pass it, it will be the most important thing I have done, not only this year, but in my entire service to the Legislature,” said Reckitt, who is serving her third term.

“I’m really touched to be part of this process, today and in the past. But today it feels better,” Reckitt said. “Whether it will feel better a month from now I can’t predict. But I certainly pray so.”

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