AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a bill to expand federal benefits for Maine tribes, setting up a possible bipartisan override vote in the Legislature as soon as next week.

Mills signed the veto Friday morning after openly opposing the bill even as it won overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Her chief legal counsel testified repeatedly that it would lead to a new era of legal conflicts between federal laws and the state’s jurisdiction over the tribes under a 43-year-old settlement agreement negotiated by the state and the tribes.

“Like many Maine people, I do not want to see the Wabanaki Nations unfairly excluded from benefits that are generally available to federally recognized tribes,” Mills wrote in her six-page veto letter. “I believe the interest we share to do right by the Wabanaki Nations and Maine people must be accomplished through legislation that is clear, thoroughly vetted and well understood by all parties.

“Unfortunately, I do not believe that L.D. 2004 achieves these important standards, and I fear it would result in years, if not decades, of new, painful litigation that would exacerbate our government-to-government relationship and only further divide the state and our people. That said, I strongly believe that the stated goals of L.D. 2004 – to ensure the Wabanaki Nations are fairly benefitting from federal law – can and should be achieved by other simple measures that do not cause confusion and litigation.”

Her administration has argued that tribes already benefit from all but a small number of federal laws and programs, noting that the tribes have received over $423 million in federal funding since 2019.

The bill, L.D. 2004, was sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and introduced late in the session. A public hearing was held within 24 hours of the seven-page bill being printed and made public. It breezed through both chambers one day after coming out of the Judiciary Committee with the support of bipartisan supermajorities in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.


Talbot Ross declined to be interviewed, but said in a written statement that she will work “tirelessly” to override the veto.

“For the Wabanaki people to build their tribal governments, engage in meaningful economic development, access essential federal programs, reduce unemployment and poverty, and improve housing and infrastructure, they must enjoy the same rights, privileges, powers and immunities as every other federally recognized tribe in the United States,” Talbot Ross said.

“It is widely accepted that the current status quo under the Settlement Act is unfair, unjust and inequitable. That is why a bipartisan, supermajority of the Legislature passed this bill and exactly why I will work tirelessly to harness that same group of legislators and override this veto.”


Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, called on lawmakers to stand by their original votes and override the veto, saying the state has an obligation to ensure fair and reasonable treatment of the tribes since it has “caused so much pain” in the past. Lawmakers, he said, have a chance to leave a legacy.

“This veto is disappointing but unsurprising,” Jackson said in a written statement. “With all due respect to the chief executive, the time has come and passed for us to rectify our laws and honor the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki Nations. At the very least, it’s time for the Wabanaki people to receive the federal benefits they deserve. I’m hopeful the Legislature will stay true to the original vote and proudly stand with the Wabanaki people – our neighbors and friends.”


House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Republican from Winter Harbor who co-sponsored the bill, could not be reached Friday to discuss whether he had the votes to help overturn the veto.

But Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, urged Republicans to override the veto in the name of liberty.

“L.D. 2004 is a basic liberty issue and that’s probably why an authoritarian like Janet Mills opposes it,” Andrews said in a written statement. “Every Republican should be fighting to overturn this veto to tell the governor that the Legislature has spoken unanimously in both chambers on enactment. It is beyond time that we gave the tribes the freedom to help themselves like every other tribe in the United States.”

The bill would grant Maine tribes access to all current and future federal legislation benefiting federally recognized tribes across the country, including those that could override the state’s authority, with the exception of gaming laws allowing casinos and laws on serious crimes.

Mills said in an interview on Friday that the bill deserves more vetting before becoming law. Once adopted, future Legislatures will not be able to make changes to address “serious unintended consequences,” without the agreement of the tribes, she said.

“If a legislator is sitting there, being pressured to vote one way or the other, (and) thinks, ‘We can just fix this next January,’ they have to think again,” she said.


Supporters and opponents have starkly different arguments about the bill’s impact.

The administration worries that the proposal could have far-reaching consequences for nontribal members and communities, leading to confusion and conflict, because it will override state jurisdiction. And they argue that the bill does not grant the tribes any additional benefits.

Tribal leaders say the bill would simply give them certainty about accessing federal programs and would not adversely affect nontribal communities.


Mills expressed concerns about how federal laws could be applied in Maine and pointed to the ongoing dispute over federal rules aimed at protecting endangered right whales as an example of how federal jurisdiction can harm the state.

Mills said protecting the state’s jurisdiction over tribal lands, including those that could be purchased by the tribes in the future, would better protect Maine residents and tribal members from any new federal legislation.


“I’m not so sure I have that much faith in the federal government to do what’s right for all of the people of Maine, including the tribes,” Mills said. “It could well result in piecemeal holdings where we wouldn’t even know what laws or regulations apply.

“In my view, we share the same air, we share the same waters, we share the same love for our state and its natural resources – I don’t want the federal government coming in and mixing things up that way.”

The strong bipartisan support in the Legislature suggested that supporters had enough support to override a veto. But lawmakers have since had bruising floor debates on controversial bills on abortion, gun control, gender-affirming care and parental rights that could change the dynamics. And Talbot Ross had threatened to withhold support for the budget if Mills vetoed the tribal bill.

Tensions are particularly high in the House of Representatives, where Republicans are fuming over Talbot Ross’ handling of the abortion bill, including a lengthy recess to allow one member to drive from Deer Isle to ensure Democrats had the votes to pass it.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, said supporters are looking to shore up support among Republican lawmakers to see whether the late-session wrangling has cost them support for the speaker’s tribal bill.

“We’re just trying to figure out the sore feelings that are out there over things that have nothing to do with us and trying to figure out if we still have the level of support that we had,” Francis said. “We’re really appreciative of the bipartisan support of our bill. We just hope people can understand that these things weren’t linked together.”


Tribal leaders see the bill as an important and incremental step toward restoring full sovereignty to Indigenous communities. It comes a year after Mills threatened to veto a more comprehensive sovereignty bill, effectively killing it.

Until Friday, administrative officials had been reluctant to speak on the record about their concerns outside of committee hearings and work sessions. And tribal leaders have been working around Mills and directly with lawmakers from both parties to overcome the veto.


Francis accused the administration of trying to kill the bill by using scare tactics and deliberately creating confusion about what the legislation would accomplish.

“Really, this is about the governor trying to continue to quite frankly oppress the tribes and oppose tribal sovereignty at every level,” Francis said.

“We’re five years into this (sovereignty) effort now, and you have at every turn basically one person controlling this agenda, and we have a supermajority in each chamber,” he continued. “At some point we have to make a stand. I’m hopeful that this time the Legislature will send a message to the governor that we’re moving forward with this incremental step.”


Mills’ office has expressed a willingness to work with the tribes, so they can access benefits under two specific programs they cannot currently access: the Stafford Act, which allows tribes to directly receive emergency funding, and Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Under current law, Maine tribes are eligible for federal laws that don’t impact the state’s jurisdiction. When those laws impact state jurisdiction, Wabanaki Nations must be specifically included by Congress, which rarely happens.

Tribal leaders argue that the current process is filled with uncertainty. On several occasions, they have sought to take advantage of federal laws, whether it was seeking emergency federal funding to repair a health clinic or hiring health care workers with out-of-state licenses to work in their territory during the pandemic, only to have the state object, they said.

The bill would instead grant them access to these federal laws and their benefits, unless the state objects and lobbies Congress to exclude them.

State lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to advance the bill more than a week ago.

The House of Representatives endorsed the bill with a 100-47 vote, and the Senate with a 26-8 vote, with unanimous follow-up enactment votes.


Those majorities suggest the bill may have the support needed to overcome the governor’s veto.

It takes a two-thirds supermajority of the members present and voting to override a governor’s veto. The bill’s fate will likely depend on who is present and whether any members have changed their minds after particularly contentious debates.

The closing days of the session, which already has stretched a week beyond its planned adjournment date, have seen Republicans losing their battles in the Democrat-led chambers.

It’s unclear how those defeats might impact Republican support for the tribal bill, especially in the House.

Lawmakers have yet to override any of Mills’ vetoes since she took office in 2019.

Mills also opposed a sweeping bill seeking to restore sovereignty to tribes sponsored by Talbot Ross last session.

Rep. Aaron Dana, who is the Passamaquoddy Tribal representative to the House, said the bill vetoed Friday 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.

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