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Progress for Maine tribes could involve sports gambling

The tribes and their legislative allies have worked for two years to pass a sovereignty bill.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s four Native American tribes are closer than they have been in years to regaining tribal sovereignty. 

But with just over a month remaining in the legislative session, the tribes’ quest appears to have become even more complicated because of an alternative plan from Gov. Janet Mills.

The tribes and their legislative allies have worked for two years to pass a sovereignty bill, which would give the Penobscots, Passamaquoddes, Maliseets, and Micmacs far more control over their future. 

The sovereignty bill would in effect let the tribes control most taxation of tribal members and businesses on tribal land, give tribal government more authority over criminal violations, natural resources enforcement, and other matters on tribal lands, and allow the Maine tribes to be covered by a variety of federal programs and benefits that are unavailable to them because of the 1980 Maine Indian Land claim settlement.

However, lawmakers said Mills opposes some of those changes and appears likely to veto the sovereignty bill, which the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee passed on Tuesday by a slim margin.

Mills has proposed an alternative plan, which would cover sales taxes for businesses and state income taxes for individuals and businesses on tribal land, but not some of the other measures.

But it would also give the tribes a new source of income by allowing them to operate mobile sports gambling, which is presently not allowed in Maine.

The tribes have tried multiple times over the past two decades to be allowed to operate a casino, as tribes in many other states do, but those efforts have always been rejected.

On Wednesday, a new amendment to the governor’s plan was rolled out, allowing sports gambling at four off-track betting facilities, the Oxford Casino, Bangor Raceway, and First Track commercial race track in Cumberland.

Expanding the sports betting was apparently done in response to significant criticism from Maine casinos and others that they were being excluded.

The Legislature has debated legalizing sports gambling several times in recent years. A bill to allow it has received all but final approval from the state House and Senate but is still awaiting a decision on funding and final passage.

Committee members asked many questions about the governor’s new plan on Wednesday but have not yet voted on it. A number of those committee members already support the broader tribal sovereignty bill.

It was indicated the tribes themselves were consulted on the governor’s bill and supported it, even though they still wanted the larger sovereignty bill to pass, too.

That bill could potentially come to a vote in House and Senate next week.   

The Judiciary Committee will need to vote on the governor’s alternative plan before going to the full Legislature.

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