Maine’s tribes and Gov. Janet Mills remain divided over a historic legislative package that would restore the sovereignty rights of the state’s four tribal nations, but they stood in agreement on a group of targeted reforms presented to legislators Thursday.

The proposal would make small, carefully delineated reforms, such as removing state sales taxes from certain goods and services produced and consumed on tribal territories or giving the revenues from those taxes to the tribes and lifting state taxes on incomes earned by tribal members on their reservations.

It also would allow certain types of mobile and in-person sports betting facilities to operate on tribal reservations, a provision that drew opposition from the state’s existing casino interests at Thursday’s hearing.

The 34-page proposal – technically an amendment to bill L.D. 585 – was produced through ongoing negotiations between the governor’s office and the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe and Houlton band of Maliseets.

Mills’ representative, legal counsel Gerald Reid, testified in support of the measure.

“I think we were all aware when these conversations began that trust can be hard to earn and easy to lose, and nowhere is that more true than in the context of tribal-state relations,” Reid told lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing for the bill before the Judiciary Committee. “It wasn’t always apparent that we would be able to reach an agreement on this package. But even if we didn’t, we were determined to have a respectful and constructive dialogue that would help to build trust.”

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Tribal representatives declared their support for the measure, but stressed that they do not see it as a substitute for the far more expansive legislative effort – L.D. 1626 – that would throw out a wide range of constraints placed on Maine tribes’ powers and privileges that do not apply to the rest of the country’s 570 federally recognized Indian tribes.

SOVEREIGNTY STILL THE GOAL

“We will continue our efforts to regain our sovereignty through L.D. 1626,” Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis told the legislators. “But, today’s amendment to L.D. 585 will provide some meaningful economic benefits to the Penobscot people, our communities and the local surrounding communities in which many of our people live and work. And many of the people in the local non-tribal communities work for us. This amendment will provide some benefits to all of us.

“The amendment to L.D. 585 before you today is not perfect,” Francis added. “But, it is progress, and I do not want to walk away from progress.”

Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s tribal ambassador, said the overwhelming support for the more sweeping L.D. 1626 at Tuesday’s hearing for that bill – only Reid testified in opposition – “shows where the hearts and spirits of the tribes are.”

“We see the only real path forward on healing the tribal state relationship is by amending the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act,” Dana added. “However, the provisions in 585 as amended will be beneficial to our communities and we are glad for the progress made during the negotiations between the tribes and the state.”

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Also speaking in support was Passamaquoddy tribal attorney Michael-Corey Francis Hinton, great-grandson of tribal elder Peter Francis, whose brutal and unpunished slaying by four white hunters in 1965 helped galvanize the tribes’ struggle for justice and sovereignty. Hinton noted that the bill negotiated with the governor’s office helped rectify the state’s discrimination against the tribes in the authorizing of casinos by others while preventing similar economic development efforts by the tribes.

“This legislation recognizes that the way that Maine’s gaming industry has evolved has left out and discriminated against Native Americans,” he said.

OPPOSITION FROM GAMBLING INTERESTS

Existing casino interests testified in opposition to the bill because it would allow the tribes – but not the existing casinos – to participate in a new type of gambling in the state: mobile and in-person sports wagering.

“We feel as though we should have fair and equal treatment when it comes to having the opportunity to engage in sports wagering,” Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Williams said in defense of one of his members, the Oxford Casino.

Jon Mandel of the Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of national gambling interests, said they opposed the bill “because it limits the number of companies that can engage in it.”

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Carroll Conley of the Christian Civic League opposed the bill’s gambling expansion on moral grounds. “We would be in favor of getting rid of all forms of gambling, including the (state) lottery, because of the toll it takes on the poor,” Conley said. “For a whole while this was a reliable progressive position politically”

The amendments to L.D. 585 – which provide a glimpse into the reforms Mills supports – are a far cry from the reforms recommended by a 19-member task force appointed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and encoded in L.D. 1626, which Mills opposes.

L.D. 1626 – which had a hearing Tuesday – sweeps away all the special restrictions Maine insisted the tribes accept during the final phases of the 1980 negotiations to settle the tribes’ claims to two-thirds of the land in Maine.

It would make Maine tribal territory subject to federal law, not state laws or municipal regulations, and ensure all federal laws designed to benefit tribes apply in Maine, which is not currently the case. It also would liberalize rules on where the tribes can buy additional land and end the tribes’ obligation to pay sales and property taxes on their territories.

Mills’ office has has not responded to multiple interview requests on the tribal sovereignty issue over the past two weeks.

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