The decades-long quest by Maine tribes to open casinos or other gambling venues in Maine suffered another setback Thursday when lawmakers upheld Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a tribal gaming bill.

After nearly an hour of debate, supporters of the bill to allow Maine tribes to offer gaming on tribal lands failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override Mills’ veto. The 80-53 vote comes after lawmakers had already postponed work on a larger and more complex suite of bills to overhaul Maine’s 31-year-old legal settlement with the tribes.

The bill, L.D. 554, would have granted the four federally recognized tribes in Maine – Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians – the same level of sovereignty over gambling afforded to more than 500 other tribes across the country under federal law.

The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act effectively stripped tribes of the authority to open casinos, slot machine parlors or offer other gambling on their lands. Tribes have been trying unsuccessfully for years to gain either legislative or voter approval to open casinos in Maine, only to see voters approve non-tribal casinos in Bangor and Oxford.

Tribal Rep. Rena Newell, shown in 2018, said tribal nations in Maine, unlike all other federally recognized tribes across this country, do not have the opportunity to truly engage in governmental gaming operations. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

In an emotional appeal to her House colleagues, Rep. Rena Newell of the Passmaquoddy Tribe said she took offense at some of the objections raised by Mills in her veto message, particularly any suggestions that tribes would not share resulting revenues with the state and surrounding municipalities. The bill would require tribes to negotiate such revenue sharing and a host of other details with the governor.

“The chief executive’s veto was a rejection of an opportunity to help people who have lived in Maine since time immemorial pursue economic self-sufficiency,” Newell said. “It is an action that only helps to serve casinos run by out-of-state companies that send their profits to Kentucky and Pennsylvania.”

Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s tribal ambassador, said the governor’s veto and the Legislature’s failure to override it were a huge disappointment. Tribal representatives had thought they had developed a “really great product” in cooperation with state officials, only to find out that Mills had concerns.

“We felt let down. It’s frustrating to get this close,” Dana said. “All we are asking is to be treated like any other tribe in the country.”

In her veto message, Mills said the bill was fraught with problems and would not provide the state, or surrounding communities, with ample opportunities to have input on tribal gaming operations. Mills had suggested the bill be withdrawn and brought back next session after more discussion.

“This bill provides no predictability or meaningful limitations on where tribal gaming may occur, or on the size of each facility,” Mills wrote in her lengthy, four-page veto letter Wednesday. “The tribal gaming facilities that the legislation would authorize could be large or small, anything from a grand casino to a few slot machines in a convenience store, and the state and adjacent non-tribal communities would have little or no influence over their placement.”

But bill supporters, including sponsor Rep. Benjamin Collings of Portland, said the bill would only provide the same economic development rights provided to hundreds of other tribes around the country under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

“This was a law that was passed by bipartisan overwhelming support in Congress, signed by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, and over the years has been implemented in states across our country (and) been a huge success story,” Collings said. “Why on earth, if we do the same thing here … will it be terrible? Do we not have faith in the tribes and the communities and leaders of Maine to do the same thing? I think we do.”

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