Rena Newell, center, former tribal representative and current chief of the Passamaquoddy at Sipayik, watches as votes are tabulated in the Maine House of Representatives that sustained Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would have expanded tribal rights. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — A bill to allow the four Wabanaki tribes of Maine to access the same benefits available to every other federally recognized tribe in the United States died on Thursday after the Maine House fell 10 votes shy of overriding a gubernatorial veto.

House members voted 84-57 in favor of overriding Gov. Janet Mills’ veto, but an override requires the support of at least two-thirds of those in attendance to succeed. The failure effectively sustains the veto and kills a bill that Wabanaki leaders considered a step toward restoring tribal sovereignty.

Tribal leaders used words like tyrant and oppressive when describing Mills and her veto.

“The governor is out of touch,” said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. “Her hard-line stance in opposition to the tribes is something of a bygone era, though apparently just effective enough today. Though today was a loss on the floor of the House, we’re confident moving forward we will only gain greater support.”

At stake was a bill giving the Wabanaki tribes access to the same federal laws and programs, including those that could override state authority, that are available to the nation’s 570 other federally recognized tribes. Currently in Maine, federal laws pertaining to the tribes apply only if they do not interfere with state jurisdiction.

The amended bill made clear that tribes would still have to follow state gambling, clean water and major criminal laws.


Bill advocates say access to such federal laws and programs would help promote tribal economic, social and educational outcomes, and point to studies that show the Wabanaki tribes fare worse in these areas than tribes that have access to these benefits.

Tribal leaders have pointed to examples of the state preventing their communities from taking advantage of federal laws, such as the state’s refusal to allow the tribes to hire medical professionals with out-of-state licenses as allowed under federal law and the tribes’ inability to seek federal disaster funding without a state emergency declaration.

Opponents argue the proposed bill is too vague and would lead to costly state-tribal lawsuits. They said the state allows tribes to receive almost all of these benefits and is willing to work with the tribes to get access to those that they are currently shut out of on a program-by-program basis.

Supporters of an effort to override Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would have expanded tribal rights fill the hallway in the State House on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Tribal supporters filled the State House on Thursday morning, lining the hallways carrying homemade signs that urged lawmakers to “Stand with the Wabanaki” and “Set Them Free.” Another read “10,000 years,” a reference to the time that the Wabanaki have called the area now known as Maine home.

Demonstrators ranged from civil libertarians on the right to social justice advocates on the left.



Tribal leaders who had gathered to watch the vote from the House balcony – where a collective gasp was heard when the vote tally was announced, followed by a sob and a walkout of tribal observers – said they were disappointed by how hard Mills personally worked to kill the bill and how many supporters caved.

“I am thankful to my colleagues who had the courage to vote their conscience and not succumb to the incessant calls by the governor and her staff to strong-arm them into voting against what they know is good policy for Maine,” said Pasmaquoddy Tribal Rep. Aaron Dana.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, center, watches as votes are tabulated Thursday in the Maine House of Representatives to sustain Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would have expanded tribal rights. Joseph Socobasin, left, is vice chief of Passamaquoddy Indian Township, and Rena Newell, right, is the former tribal representative and current chief of the Passamaquoddy at Sipayik. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Roll call records show 13 House members – 12 Republicans and a single Democrat – changed their votes from yes in June, when the bill passed with a 100-47 veto-proof majority, to no Thursday, when it failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to override Mills’ veto.

Democratic support for the tribal bill remained strong. Only one former Democratic supporter changed his mind, Ed Crockett of Portland’s Munjoy Hill. Two Democrats who had voted against the tribal bill in June did so again Thursday: Bill Bridgeo of Augusta and Anne-Marie Mastraccio of Sanford.

Reached after the vote, Crockett, said he still supported the premise of the bill that he’d voted for last month and believes a better version of it could come together quickly.

“After reviewing the governor’s veto letter it became clear there was still work to be done to find common ground,” Crockett said. “It is now time for the governor and tribal leaders to continue discussions and negotiations and get this critical legislation done.”


Republicans like Rep. Jennifer Poirier, of Skowhegan, a member of the committee that took up the bill, told lawmakers the bill felt rushed because of the way it was presented, with a public hearing and work session held in a two-week time frame that shut many impacted municipalities out of the process.

“We have to think more about the situation as a whole,” said Poirier, who voted against the bill in June and the override Thursday. “I really want to support the tribes in this matter, but we also have to think about how this bill could have negative consequences with all other Mainers and the municipalities.”

The bill was introduced late in the session, with a public hearing being held within 24 hours of the bill being printed, but what the bill tried to do wasn’t new: it sought to enact one of the recommendations from a 2020 legislative task force on changes needed to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

Ultimately, the bill died because Republicans who voted for the bill in June changed their minds.

Talbot Ross started building bipartisan support for this bill and other tribal rights legislation before the current session even opened, visiting tribes on their home reservations to discuss common ground with House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor.

Faulkingham and Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, built a Republican coalition that helped deliver the bill with what appeared to be a veto-proof supermajority in June. But that was when Republicans thought helping Talbot Ross with her bill might make her amenable to their proposed changes to the abortion or budget bills.


The coalition began to fall apart after Talbot Ross shut down multiple attempts to narrow the scope of a controversial Democratic bill to broaden abortion access later in pregnancy that passed over Republican objections last week and Democrats on the budget-writing committee overlooked Republican proposals.


Andrews made a final plea for the coalition to hold during an impassioned floor speech prior to the vote.

“Everyone in this chamber should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Wabanaki,” Andrews said. “This vote must be about helping the Wabanaki tribes whose health, educational and economic outcomes lag far behind those of other population groups in Maine and other tribes throughout the country.”

Andrews went on to address those in his own party who were angry at their treatment by the Democrats.

“Today’s vote must be about people and families, not about whether you are mad at the speaker or the Democratic majority,” Andrews said. “I’ve not allowed my anger to influence my vote today. This vote is bigger than me or you or any petty political beef we have in this chamber.”


None of the lawmakers who had changed their position were available for comment Thursday evening.

In a written statement, Talbot Ross called the sustaining of the tribal rights bill veto “a deeply shameful moment” that keeps in place the unfair, unjust and inequitable terms of the Settlement Act. She said the Mills administration seems determined to hold the Wabanaki Nation back.

Talbot Ross admitted she was disappointed at the outcome, but she refused to admit defeat.

“So long as the Wabanaki people face this injustice, the entire state suffers,” she said. “I pledged to keep us moving toward a future where we truly recognize and honor the Wabanaki Nations. Regardless of the vote today, that is a pledge I intend on keeping.”

Tribal leaders also vowed to bounce back to continue fighting for tribal sovereignty in the future.

“Tribal issues becoming law are not a matter of if, but when,” said Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. “We now have bipartisan support in both chambers to build off for the future. We came up just shy today but we’re not going away.”


Rep. Dana noted there is already a full tribal sovereignty bill pending before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that will come up for review when lawmakers reconvene next year. The bill, L.D. 2007, was postponed until the second half of this session because it was so large in scope.

Supporters of an effort to override Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would have expanded tribal rights fill the hallway in the State House on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After the House vote, Mills issued a statement excerpting her veto letter in which she said she wants to work with the tribes and Maine’s congressional delegation to support clear, collaboratively written federal legislation to make federally beneficial laws apply to Wabanaki Nations.

“I do not want to see the Wabanaki Nations unfairly excluded from benefits that are generally available to federally recognized tribes,” Mills said. “I simply 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.”

Mills signed the veto last Friday 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.

“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,” Mills said in her veto letter. “That said, I strongly believe that the stated goals of L.D. 2004 – to ensure the Wabanaki Nations are fairly benefiting from federal law – can and should be achieved by other simple measures that do not cause confusion and litigation.”

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, had 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 last Friday. “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.”

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