The Senate voted unanimously Friday to advance a historic bill that would restore sovereignty to Maine tribes after more than four decades of legal restrictions that do not apply to any other federally recognized tribes in the United States.

Unlike the House, which voted 81-55 in support of the bill on Thursday, the Senate had virtually no debate and quickly declared the bill to be passed without a roll call vote. While the bill could still face additional votes and debate in the Legislature, the action puts the bill on a clear path to passage and a potential veto by Gov. Janet Mills.

The Senate’s vote in favor of the bill came after brief remarks by Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, who served on the commission that recommended changes to a pair of federal and state laws passed in 1980 to settle a tribal land claim to two-thirds of the territory of the state of Maine.

Moore said the commission spent many hours educating themselves about the issues and figuring out ways to put Maine’s tribes on par with hundreds of other federally recognized tribes that are treated as sovereign nations. Moore said she would have preferred to break up the bill by issues, but she would support the sweeping bill before the Senate.

“A lot of work has gone into the bill before you,” Moore said. “While it may not be perfect, or exactly what the task force thought it would include, or what you and I would like it to be, I support moving this forward and approving the version before you today.”

The bill faces an expected veto by Mills, who favors more targeted and incremental reforms and is backing a different bill to grant exclusive online sport betting rights to the tribes. The Mills-backed bill also is supported by the tribes and was approved by the House on Friday.

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A spokesperson for Mills did not respond to questions Friday about whether the governor would veto the sovereignty bill or a separate bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control of its water supplies.

But Gerald Reid, the governor’s chief legal counsel, has submitted a letter to Congress opposing federal legislation to expand tribal sovereignty in Maine. That bill would only apply to future federal laws, unlike the state bill.

That opposition puts Mills, a former state attorney general who opposed the tribes in court, at odds with Democrats, including Maine’s two members of Congress and President Biden.

A veto of the Legislature’s tribal sovereignty bill would likely doom the effort. The House approval of the broader sovereignty bill fell well short of the two-thirds threshold needed to overturn a veto.

Maine tribes have fewer rights than all of the 570 other federally recognized tribes in the United States because of the 1980 settlement acts. Under the agreements, tribes in Maine are treated more like municipalities than sovereign nations.

The bill, which incorporates the recommendations of the task force formed to look at changing the 1980 agreements, would greatly enhance the tribes’ powers over land use, natural resources, environmental measures, taxation and other matters on tribal land.

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WIDE EXPANSION OF RIGHTS

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. Instead of being regulated by the state as if they were municipalities, the tribes and their lands would instead have greater rights to self-government and would be subject to federal laws.

The bill 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.

It would also expand the jurisdiction of tribal courts.

The House approved the bill with a mostly party-line vote, 81-55. Republicans raised concerns about tribes being subject to different tax regulations, possibly gaining business advantage over non tribal business. They also worried about expanding tribes’ ability to acquire land and place it in trust, which would make it exempt if from state law and municipal property taxes.

Nine of the 11 members absent for Thursday’s vote were Republicans. Only two lawmakers broke with party ranks, with Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, opposing the bill and Rep. Thomas Martin Jr., R-Greene, supporting it.


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