Supporters of tribal sovereignty at the State House last month | Via Wabanaki Alliance
After opposition from Gov. Janet Mills halted progress on a bill that would reinforce Wabanaki sovereignty and reset a relationship with the state that the tribes argue is fraught with paternalism, Wabanaki leaders say they will continue the push to be treated like other federally recognized tribes but recognize that the fate of their effort stands with governor and legislature.
A statement from Wabanaki leaders was released Wednesday morning on LD 1626, one of the highest-profile bills of the 2022 legislative session. As Beacon previously reported, the bill would alter the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 to reinforce Wabanaki sovereignty by strengthening tribal communities’ criminal jurisdiction and recognizing the rights of tribes to regulate hunting, fishing and natural resource and land use on their territory.
“We are going to continue to push for our sovereignty regardless of the outcome on L.D. 1626, and we acknowledge that this process now rests with state government and is out of our hands,” the statement from the tribes said. “Our ancestors made sacrifices so we could be here today, and it is our sacred duty to continue to press for full restoration and recognition of Wabanaki sovereignty. We look forward to continuing this work with all of our partners and allies.”
Mainers from across the state have lined up en masse behind LD 1626, with over 1,500 people testifying in favor of the bill in February during a public hearing. The measure was then passed by the legislature with strong majorities in both chambers. However, Mills opposes the effort to reinforce Wabanaki sovereignty, making her one of only a few Democratic officials in the state to argue publicly against the measure.
Likely hoping to avoid a high-profile veto sure to infuriate her base in an election year, Mills applied pressure on the legislature to kill the measure and not send it to her desk. Because it had a fiscal impact on the state budget, LD 1626 needed to be funded by the legislature’s powerful — and some say anti-democratic — budget-making panel, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee (AFA). In response to the governor’s concerns with the language of the bill, the legislature declined to include the historic sovereignty measure in the bills funded with leftover budget money.
There may still be a chance for AFA committee members or lawmakers to take the tribal sovereignty bill off the “Special Appropriations Table” and amend it or fund it by other means when the legislature reconvenes on May 9 to vote on bills vetoed by the governor. However, it’s unclear if that will happen.
AFA chairs Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Teresa Pierce (D-Falmouth) did not respond to a request for comment from Beacon.
On Monday evening, the sponsor of LD 1626, House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), said she hopes there is still a legislative path to fund her bill. “After all these years, we’re still hoping it still has some life,” she told Beacon.
But lawmakers took no further action on the bill during the last regular day of the session Monday, meaning it currently remains with the legislature.
‘More work to be done’
In the statement Wednesday, the tribes made clear that reinforcing their permanent sovereignty as Indigenous Nations — and changing a system that currently treats them as municipality-like entities — is still a top legislative priority. They noted that the Settlement Act must be amended, as it has resulted in “decades of social and economic injustice for the Wabanaki people and has also harmed the surrounding rural communities because our Nations have been prevented from fully accessing federal dollars to support critical social and health services.”
However, Wabanaki leaders said it’s unlikely that the sovereignty bill has enough votes in the legislature to overcome Mills’ opposition.
“We are disappointed that the Governor and Attorney General’s office continue to have concerns about the provisions of L.D. 1626,” they said. “But, in talking with the Democratic legislative leaders and looking to the vote count for L.D. 1626, it is clear that there are not enough votes in the 130th Legislature to override a veto. So, while we have made significant and concrete progress in moving the needle, there is still more work to be done.”
In their statement, the tribal chiefs asked the wide-ranging coalition in support of LD 1626, along with the lawmakers who have pushed for the bill, to continue working with them on sovereignty efforts. The leaders added that more work to educate people around the state about the benefits of the bill — both for Indigenous nations and surrounding communities — is essential. In particular, such education is needed for “local municipalities and the forest products industry, who continue to misunderstand how tribal sovereignty can be the rising tide that lifts the economies and overall socio-economic wellbeing of our neighbors in rural Maine,” the Wabanaki said.
The statement also acknowledged that two other bills the tribes have advocated for, LD 906 and LD 585, reached Mills’ desk this session. LD 906, a bill to address the unsafe and deteriorating water system at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation, was signed by Mills last week.
LD 585 — which seeks to facilitate better tribal-state relations, implement tax benefits on tribal land and legalize and establish a regulatory framework for sports wagering on Wabanaki territory — has passed the legislature and is currently before Mills for consideration. That bill is a compromise between the governor and the tribes.
The Wabanaki in their statement noted the importance of both LD 906 and LD 585 and said they appreciated Mills’ support for the measures. However, they also made clear that neither of those bills represents the much-needed sovereignty that would be recognized through LD 1626.
Mills has not signed LD 585 yet but has said that she will. However, the governor appears to have been playing LD 585 and the larger sovereignty bill off one another in negotiations with the tribes. The Bangor Daily News reported last week that Mills’ top lawyer informed the tribes that LD 585, the governor’s own compromise proposal, would be vetoed if the larger sovereignty bill was advanced.
Mills seeks to avoid a ‘confrontation’
While the governor has brokered some compromises with the tribes over the years, Mills has opposed the push for recognition of Wabanaki sovereignty since taking office in 2019. In addition, as Maine’s former attorney general, she opposed the Wabanaki in court during some of the legal battles over tribal rights that led to the current stalemate.
While the governor has frequently shown willingness to use her authority to kill progressive priorities, she has appeared desperate to save face during the current fight over tribal sovereignty and avoid a veto of LD 1626 that would likely draw widespread condemnation for refusing to sign what amounts to a basic reinforcement of rights common to tribes around the country. Mills is up for reelection in November.
“I do not wish to have a confrontation over LD 1626,” the governor wrote in a letter to tribal and legislative leaders last week in which she argued — without citing concrete evidence — that LD 1626 would lead to a wave of litigation and increased divisions in the state. “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. To help us continue to move forward, I ask that LD 1626 remain with the legislature and that LD 585 be enacted into law while we continue our work together on areas of mutual concern.”
Earlier this week, however, Republicans tried to force the legislature’s hand and put the onus to make a decision back on Mills by attempting to remove LD 1626 from the Special Appropriations Table in a move that would have allowed the bill to be considered again by lawmakers. However, the Democratic majority in the Maine Senate voted 16-13 to table the bill. Sens. Chloe Maxmin of Lincoln County and Ben Chipman of Cumberland County were the only Democrats to oppose delaying action on the measure.
“I don’t want it to die on the table, because it’s only $44,000,” Maxmin said of the bill, referring to its fiscal note.
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at email@example.com.
Maine Beacon, April 27, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/