A group from the Wabanaki Confederacy drums and sings Wednesday before a news conference in support of the tribal sovereignty bills in front of the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Janet Mills faced growing pressure Wednesday to drop her opposition to restoring sovereignty to Maine’s four indigenous tribes and sign a bill that she is widely expected to veto.

Dozens of tribal leaders, tribe members and supporters gathered at the State House to mount a last-ditch effort to convince Mills to sign three landmark bills that have the support of lawmakers, including a historic proposal to undo Maine’s 42-year-old legal settlement limiting the rights of tribes to govern themselves. Members beat on a drum, sang and danced while hailing a sea change in the historically strained relationship between tribes and the state.

Two of three major bills benefiting tribes – giving them exclusive rights to mobile sports betting and changing tax laws, as well as the sovereignty bill – are currently awaiting funding approval before they can be sent to the governor’s desk. The Legislature needs to approve funding because the state would see reduced tax revenue from the tribes if the bills become law.

If the funding is not approved, they would die on the table, sparing Mills from the spectacle of vetoing legislation that has energized her progressive base during an election year – a base that has been disappointed with some of Mills’ more centrist positions. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the funding approval Friday and the bills could be formally sent to the governor on Monday.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers said they expect both bills to be funded and sent to the governor, forcing Mills to follow through on her veto threat or back down and sign the bill.

Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, called on Mills and lawmakers to do what’s “right, moral and just.” He said the bill was fully vetted and that the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, received nearly 2,000 pieces of testimony in support of the bill, listened to experts and held multiple works sessions.


Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township Vice Chief Darrell Newell speaks during a news conference in support of the tribal sovereignty bills Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in front of the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“The time for words is over – it’s action we need right now,” Harnett said. “It is all of the words that you (the tribes) have given us that has resulted in these bills being put on the governor’s desk and the action we need is for them to be signed now.”

Darrell Newell, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township, said he has been told that Mills plans to follow through on her veto threat, although he hoped she would reconsider.

“The governor needs to step up,” Newell said. “It’s up to her. She has an opportunity to change her mind and be a good, decent person and truly live up to her words about tribal-state relations being repairable.”


Mills, however, not only opposes the Legislature’s bill, but she also opposes a separate federal sovereignty bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, that would allow Maine tribes to benefit from future federal legislation – something state law currently prohibits. 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.

Instead of supporting broad sovereignty, the governor has negotiated a separate bill with tribal leaders that does not include the jurisdictional concessions. That bill would legalize sports betting in Maine and give tribes exclusive rights to online sports betting, a provision fiercely opposed by the state’s two casinos looking to break into the growing market.


Both L.D. 585, the sports betting bill, and L.D. 1626, the tribal sovereignty bill, are are awaiting funding approval before being sent to the governor because changes in certain tax provisions would result in a loss in revenue for the state.

A group of singers from the Wabanaki Confederacy drum and sing before a news conference in support of the tribal sovereignty bills Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in front of the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

They are among more than 200 bills seeking a slice of only $12 million in funding, since Mills committed the rest of the projected surplus in her budget.

A fiscal note attached to the sovereignty bill says that, if enacted, the bill would result in a loss of sales and income taxes of $44,650 in the first year, $152,000 in the second and $201,400 in the third year. There is no fiscal note attached to the sports betting bill, but that bill also includes tax reforms for the tribes that would likely have a similar impact on the state’s budget.

If the bills are not funded, they will die on the appropriations table. The Legislative session was scheduled to end Wednesday, but lawmakers agreed to extend it by one day. They are expected to reconvene on Monday to give nonpartisan staff enough time to produce the paperwork needed to move the bills off the appropriations table, so they can be sent to the governor.


The top priority of the tribes and many Democratic lawmakers is to pass L.D. 1626, a broad sovereignty bill informed by a special task force that looked at ways of changing the 1980 agreements. That bill would greatly enhance the tribes’ powers over land use, natural resources, environmental measures, taxation and other matters on tribal land.


Penobscot Nation elder Kathy Paul sings and drums during news conference in support of the tribal sovereignty bills Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in front of the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

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

State laws, with the exception of gambling restrictions, would no longer apply to the tribes, 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 tribe member or his or her business is based in that territory.

The bill favored by Mills’ bill also would include the same income and sales tax revisions contained in the broader sovereignty bill, so it would likely have a similar fiscal impact.

Mills has expressed concerns over jurisdictional issues raised in not only the sovereignty bill and a third bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over its drinking water. Lawmakers recalled the water bill from the governor’s desk to clarify that the tribe had no jurisdiction over the local water district, which also serves Eastport and Perry, and could not force other communities to increase water standards.

If the governor vetoes the sovereignty bill, it would first go to the House for a possible override. The bill did not pass either chamber with a veto-proof majority, and the Legislature has never overturned a Mills veto.



But Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said that “we will soon vote to enact 1626 and we will put it on the governor’s desk.” He also predicted Mills would make good on her veto threat.

Bennett called on House Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill, saying concerns about setting legal precedent, upsetting commercial norms and the status quo “ring as hollow now” as they have throughout history.

“The task before us in Maine government, whether we sit in the governor’s chair or a seat in the Maine Legislature, is to decide what is right and conform the law to what is right, not the reverse,” Bennett said. “I want to express my sincere hope, particularly the members of my own party who have opposed the initiative, that they will reconsider.”

Ernie Neptune, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, said it was “so powerful” to see Passamaquoddy water bill pass both chambers with a bipartisan, veto-proof majority. He urged tribal leaders, members and supporters to continue fighting for the tribe’s inherent rights.

“This legislative session has been monumental with regards to our sovereignty, online economic development opportunities, and finally sets us on a pathway for clean drinking water, putting us on a pathway to being accepted by the members of the Maine Legislature,” Neptune said.

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