Maine House proposes landmark bill to restore tribal sovereignty

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Protesters concerned about tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House on Monday. David Sharp/Associated Press

The House voted to advance a bill to restore sovereignty to tribes in Maine, whose power of self-rule has been limited since 1980, when they signed a land settlement agreement with the state.

After more than two hours of speeches on the floor, the bill, which had been in the works for four years, was approved by a majority partisan vote, 81-55. The Senate has yet to consider the bill, and Governor Janet Mills has expressed concerns about its scope.

Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis and other tribal leaders watched Thursday’s debate from the podium and were recognized after the vote.

“It’s a positive result,” Francis said in an interview. “We are happy to see him progress. Passing it on is very important right now. Obviously, you would like to get a two-thirds vote on everything, but we will assess where we are now, as it goes through the Senate.

Maine tribes have fewer rights than all 570 other federally recognized tribes in the United States due to the Settlement Acts, a pair of federal and state laws passed in 1980 to settle a tribal two-thirds land claim of the territory of the State. of Maine. Under the agreements, the tribes of Maine are treated more like municipalities than sovereign nations.

Supporters said the bill is about justice, human rights and the right to self-determination, allowing tribes to access federal resources to foster economic development and improve services such as health care and the courts. Opponents said the complex bill would have unintended consequences, including lost revenue for municipalities that would no longer be able to tax tribal lands.

The bill, which incorporates recommendations from a special task force formed to review changes to the 1980 agreements, would significantly strengthen tribal powers over land use, natural resources, environmental measures, taxation and other tribal land issues.

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State laws, with the exception of gambling, would no longer apply, not only on reservations but also on trust lands, which are owned by tribes for tribal purposes and are subject to federal law.

The bill would also exempt tribes from paying state or local sales taxes in their respective territories and exempt members from paying income tax, under certain conditions. These conditions include that the income be earned on or from activities in or from their territory, and that a member of the tribe or their business be based in that territory.

FEAR OF LOSING LOCAL CONTROL

Only two Republicans have spoken against the bill.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, outlined a host of reasons to oppose the bill, including expanding hunting and fishing rights, as well as giving tribes greater control over environmental laws, which she says could also impact municipalities.

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Libby noted that tribes would still be eligible for state revenue sharing, a program that returns a portion of state sales and income taxes to municipalities. She also warned that the bill could lead to more jurisdictional disputes.

Libby also framed her opposition as preserving local control for municipalities.

“I have no illusions that my words will influence votes in this body,” Libby said. “I understand the seriousness of the issue of sovereignty, and regret that I cannot support the bill given the issues I have outlined and more.”

Representative Rena Newell, of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, spoke at length on the floor, detailing the history of the Maine Accord and how it differed from other states, which mutually benefited from tribal sovereignty.

“Today, in 2022, at a time when the tribal nations of the United States are increasingly becoming leaders in rural progress, in terms of government services, economic development and environmental stewardship, the Wabanaki Nations are far behind our Native American brothers and sisters,” she said.

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While opponents have expressed concerns about unintended consequences, Newell said now is the time to address the “intended consequences” of the settlement agreement, which gives the state control of tribal affairs.

FACE THE CONSEQUENCES

“Mr. Speaker and honorable members of the House, the time has come to change that,” Newell said. recognized by the federal government in the United States.”

Deputy House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who sponsored the bill, noted the outpouring of support the bill has received from more than 1,000 people and more than 100 organizations. She noted that the tribes had only been subject to state laws for four decades.

“I want to be clear, as we’ve heard, this bill is not new,” said Talbot Ross. “It’s giving back to the Wabanaki Nations the rights they had. Prior to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, tribes had these rights.

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Mills opposes the bill, favoring a more focused and incremental approach. Nine of the 11 members absent for Thursday’s vote were Republicans. OOnly two lawmakers broke from party ranks, Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, opposing the bill and Rep. Thomas Martin Jr., R-Greene, supporting it.

As proposed, the bill would allow tribes to purchase land anywhere in the state and work with the federal government to place it in trust, which would exempt them from property taxes and other state laws. Maine, a provision that has raised concerns among municipalities.

Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, voted in favor of the bill, but hinted at the difficult road ahead.

If necessary, Babbidge said he was prepared to offer an amendment that would still allow tribes to purchase land anywhere in the state, but limit future trust land to existing plantations and unorganized townships, which are controlled by the state.

“I am always committed to equal treatment under the law,” he said. “For this bill to pass, it must be considered by members of two bodies of this legislature and the Chief Executive. If any of these people are hesitant to accept this report, I present my concerns today as a way forward.

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LESS THAN TWO-THIRDS OF MARGIN

It would take a two-thirds vote of both houses to override a governor’s veto. And Thursday’s House vote fell well below that mark.

LD 1626 is one of many bills proposed this session to help tribes.

The House and Senate voted in favor of a bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over their water supply.

And on Friday, lawmakers are expected to debate a bill giving Maine tribes exclusive rights to mobile sports betting, while allowing in-person sports betting at Maine’s race tracks and casinos.

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Sen. Joseph Baldacci, D-Bangor, said Thursday he plans to propose an amendment to gut that bill and replace it with one that has already been approved by the Legislative Assembly. Baldacci said his amendment would ensure the tribes would receive 6% of adjusted gross betting revenue, which he estimated at $2 million to $3 million per year.

Chief Francis, however, said tribal leaders did not support the change as it would put them at a significant disadvantage.

“The amendment, while cloaked in fairness, is truly detrimental to the tribal interest in this bill,” he said. “This is a tribal bill for a meaningful opportunity in Maine’s gaming industry and we believe the inclusion of casinos with online platforms will crush any opportunities for tribes in the future. .”

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