AUGUSTA — The Legislature adjourned Monday night, April 25, without taking additional action on a bill to recognize the sovereignty of Maine’s tribes.

Lawmakers are expected to reconvene May 9 to take up any vetoes that may be issued by Gov. Janet Mills, though it’s possible leadership could call another session before then.

The move came after the governor’s office released a letter asking tribal leaders and lawmakers to stand down from their efforts to push LD 1626.

Mills said in a letter to legislative and tribal leaders that she continues to oppose a bill that would recognize tribal sovereignty after more than four decades of subjugation to state laws, saying it could lead to increased litigation and more division in the state.

Mills said she has sought to soothe tensions with tribal leaders, saying her concerns are based on policy and “are not personal.” She expressed concern that the bill, which was approved by the Legislature after receiving widespread support, could lead to decades of new legal wrangling over certain provisions.

“I recognize the Tribes’ desire to see LD 1626 become law,” she wrote, “just as I hope the tribes and lawmakers recognize that my concerns about the legislation are based in policy — and are not personal — and that my fears are that it would yield years, if not decades, of new painful litigation that would only divide the state further.”

Advocates have made impassioned pleas for Mills to drop her opposition to the bill, but she’s asking the Legislature to hold on to it — a move that spares her from making a high-profile veto and disappointing her progressive base during an election year.

Both the House and Senate have approved the bill. Mills was widely expected to veto it, but the cost of implementing it — $44,650 in lost tax revenue next year — meant that it needed to be funded before it could reach Mills’ desk. On Friday, the budget-writing committee failed to do, meaning the bill is likely to die on the table.

Senate Republicans, however, sought to force the issue on Monday. Sen. Paul Davis Sr., R-Sangerville, who serves on the committee, placed the bill before the Senate. But Senate Democratic leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, postponed action, which drew opposition from two Democrats and all Republicans present. The bill could come up later.

The governor said in a letter dated April 21 but made public on Monday, April 25, that she wanted to continue working with the tribes in a constructive manner and sought to cool emotions around the issue.

“I do not wish to have a confrontation,” said Mills, a former state attorney general who has previously opposed the tribes in court. “It would serve no constructive purpose and only inflame emotions on all sides of the discussion, while likely harming the positive and constructive relationship we have worked so hard to build.”

Tribal leaders and advocates could not be reached immediately for reaction.

Mills specifically pointed to two provisions — one that would allow tribes to acquire new trust land from existing municipalities without giving those cities or towns a say and another to lift state regulations on those land plus the 300,000 acres already held in trust.

The bill would have allowed tribe to purchase land anywhere in Maine and then work with the federal government to put it into trust, which would exempt it from property and other taxes.

Mills also pointed to regulations on fish, game, water quality, land use, mining, labor laws, fire safety and building standards, among others.

During the House floor debate, Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, offered a compromise to address municipal concerns, suggesting that new land acquisitions eligible to be placed in trust be limited to plantations and unorganized territories in certain parts of the state.

Babbidge said April 25 that, if that offer was considered by either or both parties, he was not told about it.

Mills also laid out a laundry list of actions she has supported to benefit the tribes, including signing a bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over its drinking water and a bill she proposed to give tribes exclusive access to online sports gaming.

The Senate voted April 25 to send the sports betting bill to Mills, who is expected to sign it.

Mills also pointed to her support for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and banning Native American mascots, as well as efforts to expand the ability of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes to prosecute domestic violence against non-tribal members and to implement strict water quality standards to protect sustenance fishing in culturally important tribal waters.

The sovereignty bill would restore to Maine tribes the same rights and benefits afforded all of the country’s 570 other federally recognized tribes.

The rights of Maine tribes have been restricted for 42 years because of a pair of agreements signed in 1980 that resolved the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes’ claims to two-thirds of the state in exchange for $81.5 million dollars. The agreement allows the state to treat the tribes like municipalities, rather than sovereign nations, whereas other tribes in the U.S. typically answer to the federal government.

Mills, a former attorney general, has opposed sweeping efforts to undo the framework of that agreement at the state and federal levels, putting her at odds with fellow Democrats, including President Biden.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, has proposed a bill at the federal level, Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, which would allow Maine tribes to benefit from future federal laws. Mills, through her legal counsel, Gerald Reid, sent written testimony opposing that bill.

But Mills said in her letter that she would like Wabanaki Nations in Maine to benefit from federal legislation, just like every other federally recognized tribe in the U.S. But she stopped short of endorsing Golden’s bill, saying instead she believes that they can make progress on issues addressed in the bill.

“I strongly believe that we can continue to work with the Tribes and the Legislature to make progress on health, education, economic development and jurisdictional issues through deliberate and considerate work that is grounded in respectful, mutual dialog,” she wrote. “Like you, I don’t want to see the Wabanki Nations unfairly excluded from certain benefits that are generally available to federally recognized tribes, and I believe there is potential for negotiated agreement.”


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