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Bipartisan bill would allow tribes in Maine to benefit from federal law, stops short of sovereignty

The bill would allow the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet and Mi’kmaq tribes in the state to benefit from more than 150 federal laws that apply to tribes.

AUGUSTA, Maine — New legislation would allow Native Americans in Maine to benefit from federal laws despite terms of a land claims settlement, providing help to Wabanaki tribes while stopping short of full sovereignty that they've long sought.

The bipartisan proposal introduced by Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross forbids the creation of tribal casinos without state permission and keeps intact existing criminal jurisdictions, removing potential stumbling blocks to allowing tribes to benefit from laws meant to help them.

“With this bill, we have the opportunity to right this wrong,” Talbot Ross said Wednesday in a statement, noting that the bill is a step toward greater sovereignty sought by tribes.

But the administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills opposed the proposal, and her general counsel warned Wednesday that the bill could lead to confusion and litigation.

Tribes in the state are governed by the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 that stipulates they’re bound by state law, treating tribal reservations much like municipalities and generally barring federal laws that undermine state law. That sets them apart from the other 570 federally recognized tribes.

The new bill goes further than a previous proposal by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, in Congress that aimed to allow the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet and Mi’kmaq tribes to benefit from federal tribal legislation moving forward. Instead, it would apply retroactively to more than 150 existing federal laws, as well as any future federal laws.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said the bill would allow tribes to gain access to the things that everyone wants — “economic opportunity for our families, and safer and healthier, communities.”

“It is time for the state to stop treating the Wabanaki Nations as threats and start treating us as partners and neighbors that we are," he told the committee.

The Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Wednesday, a day after the bill was introduced, and weeks before lawmakers could adjourn from special session.

The governor was among the proposal's critics.

Gerald Reid, her chief legal counsel, criticized the introduction of such a far-reaching bill near the end of the legislative session, and for the committee to hold a public hearing with only one day’s notice. Reid urged the tribes to work with the administration instead of adopting a bill that would create new problems — and lawsuits.

“Ensuring that the Wabanaki Nations are appropriately benefiting from federal Indian statutes can and should be resolved collaboratively,” he told the committee.

House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he looks forward to lawmakers passing “a piece of legislation that ourselves and future generations can look back on with pride.” He added, in a statement, “I think we have a lot of ground to cover, but we can get there.”

State lawmakers aren't expected to act on a more sweeping bill aimed at granting the tribes full sovereignty, similar to one that garnered support last year but withered under a veto threat by Mills. That proposal is likely to be carried over and reintroduced in 2024.

For the tribes, it has been a long, frustrating battle since they traded some rights to the state under an $81.5 million settlement that was signed by President Jimmy Carter.

That settlement for the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet, along with a 1991 agreement for the Mi’kmaq, put the tribes in Maine on a different path from tribes elsewhere across the country. The other federally recognized tribes have greater autonomy and partner with the federal government.

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