Historic Tribal Sovereignty Bill Falters as Sports Betting Advances
A long-running effort to restore sovereignty to Maine’s four native tribes appears to have ended after the Legislature’s budget drafting committee met on Friday, but failed to approve the $44,650 funding needed for the enforce.
But at least one lawmaker has suggested negotiations could still kick-start the bill before the legislature adjourns on Monday.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills was expected to veto the Tribal Sovereignty Bill, which garnered broad support from individuals and dozens of organizations across the state to secure approval for the Legislative Assembly.
Letting the bill die on the appropriations table would save Mills from issuing a high-profile veto that could exacerbate friction between the centrist governor and her more progressive base in an election year.
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee met on Friday to allocate the last bits of a $1.2 billion budget surplus and did not take up the bill, LD 1626, effectively leaving it on the table where he will die without a last minute reprieve.
However, the committee voted, 7 to 6, to advance a narrower bill aimed in part to help the tribes.
This bill would legalize sports betting in Maine and give tribes the exclusive right to offer online sports betting. It would also change the way certain tribal membership and activities are taxed, thereby reducing the overall tax burden on Indigenous communities. Although it will need funding approval, it is expected to result in an additional $1.4 million in revenue for the state.
That bill, and others approved for funding on Friday, face additional votes before being sent to the governor.
The committee’s decisions on Friday were based on requests from Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, meaning neither caucus requested the funding to implement the sovereignty bill.
Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, co-chair of the committee, said the House caucus did not recommend moving the sovereignty bill into the budget on Friday because of the governor’s concerns over final language.
“We were hoping that by not moving today maybe people would continue to work on it with the executive over the weekend,” Pierce said. “Nothing is dead until we adjourn, so we don’t want the ongoing conversation to be interrupted by a potential veto from the governor and we didn’t want to force this (veto by) rejecting it from the committee.”
Spokespersons for Mills did not respond to requests to interview the governor about his concerns about the bill on Thursday or Friday, and offered no comment when asked if the administration was negotiating. some kind of compromise that could allow the bill to move forward on Monday.
Mills was in Machiasport on Friday to officially open the new Downeast Correctional Facility with Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and area lawmakers.
Sovereignty Bill Sponsor Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said in a text message Friday that she was unavailable for an interview. And several tribal leaders and advocates — Representative Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana, and Passamaquoddy Tribal Advocate Michael-Corey Hinton — have failed. could not be reached on Friday afternoon.
The bill could be removed from the appropriations table and voted on by the Senate on Monday, but only if introduced by an appropriations committee member or the chair.
A spokesman for Senate Speaker Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it’s possible the appropriations committee, which drafts the budget, could still propose the bill on Monday. She said the Senate president would defer to committee members, but could propose bills if all Senate committee members are absent.
“We understand that conversations between the GM’s office and tribal leaders are ongoing,” Christine Kirby said in an email. “(The Appropriations Committee) can absolutely meet on Monday to recommend that LD 1626 be taken off the table.”
Pierce said party leaders also look at priorities set by individual policy committees when deciding which bills to fund. In this case, the Judiciary Committee, which reviewed the bill, ranked tribal sovereignty 12th on its list of 16 priorities.
The bill would restore to the tribes of Maine the same rights and benefits granted to all 570 other federally recognized tribes in the country.
The rights of Maine tribes have been curtailed for the past 42 years due to a pair of agreements signed in 1980 that resolved claims by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes for two-thirds of the state in exchange for 81, $5 million. The agreement allows the state to treat the tribes as a municipality, rather than a sovereign nation, while other tribes in the United States generally answer to the federal government.
Mills, a former attorney general, has opposed sweeping efforts to undo that deal’s framework at the state and federal levels, putting her at odds with fellow Democrats, including President Biden.
Instead, Mills supports more progressive reforms. In addition to his bill to give tribes exclusive access to online sports betting, Mills signed into law a bill that gives the Passamaquoddy tribe in Pleasant Point more control over their drinking water, but not before forcing amendments to the bill to address jurisdictional issues around the district’s water standards and water quality for neighboring towns.
The Passamaquoddy’s water supply, which comes from the shallow waters of Lake Boyden, was found to have high levels of toxins and the bill would allow them to drill wells without state permission.
Two of the three major tribal bills will likely advance and be signed by the governor, but LD 1626 was the top priority for tribal leaders and advocates, including lawmakers, several of whom gave moving speeches.
Even without this sovereignty bill, tribal leaders acknowledged this week that they have made unprecedented progress.
“I just want to remind you that historically it’s unprecedented what’s happening here today,” Dwayne Tomah, a Passamaquoddy language and culture teacher, said at a rally at State House on Wednesday in support of the law Project. “It’s unprecedented the amount of support we’re getting from this building and also the amount of support we’re getting from the people of Maine.”
Ernie Neptune, vice-chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, agreed.
“This legislative session has been monumental in terms of our sovereignty, online economic development opportunities, and finally puts us on the path to clean water, setting us on the path to being accepted by members of the Maine Legislature,” Neptune said Wednesday. .
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