AUGUSTA — State lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to advance a bill that would allow Maine’s four Indigenous tribes to benefit from more federal laws, setting up a possible confrontation with the governor.

The House of Representatives endorsed the bill with a 100-47 vote, and the Senate with a 26-8 vote. Those majorities indicate the bill has the support needed to overcome a possible veto from the governor. Follow-up enactment votes taken in both chambers late Wednesday were made unanimously.

She has opposed the bill, which is sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and instead prefers targeted reforms of a landmark settlement act that makes the tribes subject to state laws, unlike most other federally recognized tribes in the U.S.

Rep. Aaron Dana, who is the Passamaquoddy Tribal representative to the House, said the bill would produce the largest step toward self-governance in recent history, even though it falls well short of the full tribal sovereignty effort that is expected next session.

Dana noted a recent example in which a tribal health clinic was damaged when pipes froze. Maine’s unique arrangement with the tribes prohibited them from receiving emergency funding directly from the federal government and the tribes had to wait for a state emergency to be declared.

“The immediate and the critical impact this could have for the Wabanaki is why I say this could be the single most important bill in recent history,” Dana said.


House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, rallied his caucus to support the proposal, saying he has spent countless hours talking to proponents and opponents of the bill. Faulkingham said there is no good reason why tribes in Maine should not benefit from federal laws benefiting about 570 other federally recognized tribes.

“Madam Speaker, let’s pass this bill,” Faulkingham said.

The margin of support was even wider in the Senate, where even those who voted against it, such as Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said they would likely support the bill if they had been given more time “to wrap his head around the history” of the bill and consider its potential impacts.

“There’s just a lot of lack of clarity about what exactly the consequences are if we pass this right now,” Brakey said. “This isn’t something we can change. Once it’s passed, it’s passed. Once the horses are out, what’s the saying, you know, you can’t close the barn door.”

Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, replied by saying the bill would have real “knock-on effects” for Maine tribes by giving tribal governments access to programs to tackle some of their biggest challenges, like child poverty and reservation water quality.

“This is not just merely some high-minded idea about legal minutia or it’s not even about fairness or historical injustice, although it’s also about all those things,” Tipping said. “This recognition will have real tangible effects on the economic conditions and the safety of many people in my district.”


Unlike the nation’s other 570 federally recognized tribes, the four tribes in Maine are excluded from benefiting from federal laws because of the terms of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

In the 1980 negotiations to settle the tribes’ claim to two-thirds of the state, Maine demanded that no federal Indian law – past or future – that undermined Maine’s authority would apply to the Maine tribes unless Congress specifically included them.

Tribal leaders argued that provision was never consented to by the tribes before passage – a claim that has fueled tribes’ yearslong effort to gain access to the legislative protections enjoyed by other tribes nationwide.

That narrative has been disputed by John M.R. Paterson, who represented the state in negotiations between the tribes and the federal government that resulted in the enactment of settlement act. Paterson says the tribes consented to that provision and that neither members of the original tribal negotiation team, nor their lawyers, has ever claimed to have been unaware of the agreement’s language.

Still, tribal leaders say the provision is problematic, since the tribes have sought to take advantage of federal laws after they have passed, only to have the state raise a jurisdictional objection.

The 151 laws enacted by Congress since 1980 to benefit tribal communities could help improve public health, respond to natural disasters, promote economic development and protect the environment, the Wabanaki Alliance says.


The version of the bill, L.D. 2004, initially approved by the House and Senate on Wednesday excludes federal gambling laws and would not allow Maine tribes to operate a casino without special permission from the state. An amendment also would exempt federal environmental laws, an attempt to address concerns from Mills and the forest products industry.

Not all Republicans were on board, however.

Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, wants Maine’s tribes to benefit from federal laws, but does not believe the bill is the best way forward. She cited concerns expressed by Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey about the lack of clarity in the bill and how it would impact existing state laws and lead to more lawsuits with the tribes.

Poirier said lawmakers have not had enough time to consider the possible impacts, since the bill was introduced late in the session and moved quickly through committee, which concerned municipalities.

“Madam Speaker, I know your passion for this bill and I know your intentions are pure,” she said. “But it’s of the utmost importance that every member of this body is aware of the implications of our actions today.”

The vote came after the House approved a resolution recognizing Native American Veterans Day.


Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, used his floor speech to address his Republican colleagues, highlighting the importance that Indigenous tribes played in America’s fight for independence and how prominent leaders, including Republicans, have supported tribal self-determination.

Andrews took aim at Mills.

“It is beyond time the tribes are given the chance to succeed,” Andrews said. “Today I ask you to join me in walking in the footsteps of General Washington, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, instead of carrying the water for the chief executive and her team of lawyers.”

Only two Democrats broke ranks and opposed bill, Reps. William Bridgeo, of Augusta, and Anne Mastraccio, of Sanford.


Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.