A long-standing effort to restore sovereignty to Maine’s four indigenous tribes appears to have ended after the Legislature’s budget-writing committee met Friday but did not approve the $44,650 in funding needed to implement it.

But at least one lawmaker suggested negotiations could still revive the bill before the Legislature adjourns Monday.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills was widely expected to veto the tribal sovereignty bill, which garnered widespread support from individuals and dozens of organizations across the state en route to gaining approval of the Legislature.

Letting the bill die on the appropriations table would save Mills from issuing a high-profile veto that could exacerbate friction between the centrist governor and her more progressive base in an election year.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee met Friday to allocate the last pieces of a $1.2 billion budget surplus and did not take up the sovereignty bill, L.D. 1626, effectively leaving it on the table where it will die without a last-minute reprieve.

However, the committee did vote, 7-6, to advance a more narrow bill partly aimed at helping the tribes.

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That bill would legalize sports gambling in Maine and give tribes the exclusive rights to offer online sports betting. It also would change the way certain tribal members and activities are taxed, reducing the overall tax burden on indigenous communities. While it needed funding approval, it is expected to result in an additional $1.4 million in revenues for the state.

That bill, and others approved for funding on Friday, face additional votes before being sent to the governor.

The committee’s decisions Friday were based on requests from Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate, which means none of the caucuses asked for the funding to implement the sovereignty bill.

Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, the committee co-chair, said the House caucus did not recommend moving the sovereignty bill into the budget Friday because of the governor’s concerns with the final language.

STRATEGIC MOVE

“We were hoping that, by not moving on it today, that people would maybe continue to work on it with the executive branch over the weekend,” Pierce said. “Nothing is dead until we adjourn, so we don’t want the ongoing conversation to be halted by a potential veto by the governor and we didn’t want to force that (veto by) voting it out of committee.”

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Spokespeople for Mills did not respond to requests to interview the governor about her concerns about the bill on Thursday or Friday, and did not comment when asked whether the administration was negotiating any sort of compromise that might allow the bill to move forward on Monday.

Mills was in Machiasport on Friday to officially open the new Downeast Correctional Facility with Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and area lawmakers.

The sovereignty bill’s sponsor, Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said Friday in a text message that she wasn’t available for an interview. And several tribal leaders and advocates – Rep. Rena Newell, of the Passamaquoddy tribe, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana and Passamaquoddy tribal attorney Michael-Corey Hinton – could not be reached Friday afternoon.

The bill could be removed from the appropriations table and placed before the Senate for a vote on Monday, but only if presented by a member of the appropriations committee or the presiding officer.

ACTION STILL POSSIBLE

A spokesperson for Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it is possible the appropriations committee, which writes the budget, could still move the bill on Monday. She said the Senate president would defer to the committee members, but could move bills if all Senate committee members are absent.

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“It is our understanding that conversations between the chief executive’s office and tribal leaders are ongoing,” Christine Kirby said in an email. “(The appropriations committee) can absolutely meet on Monday to recommend L.D. 1626 be taken off the table.”

Pierce said that party leaders also look at the priorities set by the individual policy committees when deciding which bills to fund. In this case, the Judiciary Committee, which vetted the bill, ranked tribal sovereignty as 12th on its list of 16 priorities.

The bill would restore to Maine tribes the same rights and benefits afforded all of the country’s 570 other federally recognized tribes.

The rights of Maine tribes have been restricted for 42 years because of a pair of agreements signed in 1980 that resolved the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes’ claims to two-thirds of the state in exchange for $81.5 million dollars. The agreement allows the state to treat the tribes like municipalities, rather than sovereign nations, whereas other tribes in the U.S. typically answer to the federal government.

Mills, a former attorney general, has opposed sweeping efforts to undo the framework of that agreement at the state and federal level, putting her at odds with fellow Democrats, including President Biden.

MILLS SUPPORTS INCREMENTAL REFORMS

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Instead, Mills supports more incremental reforms. In addition to her bill to give tribes exclusive access to online sports betting, Mills signed into law a bill that gives the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point more control of its drinking water, but not before forcing changes to the bill to resolve jurisdictional issues around the water district and water quality standards for nearby towns.

The Passamaquoddy’s water supply, which is drawn from the shallow waters of Boyden Lake, has been found to have high levels of toxins and the bill would allow them to drill wells without the state’s permission.

Two of the three major tribal bills will likely advance and be signed by the governor, but L.D. 1626 was the top priority for tribal leaders and advocates, including lawmakers, several of whom delivered emotional floor speeches.

Even without that sovereignty bill, tribal leaders acknowledged that they have made unprecedented progress this week.

“I just want to remind you that, historically, this is unprecedented what is happening here today,” Dwayne Tomah, Passamaquoddy language and cultural teacher, said at a State House rally in support of the bill Wednesday. “It’s unprecedented the amount of support that we are receiving from this building and also the amount of support that we are receiving from the people of Maine.”

Ernie Neptune, vice chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, agreed.

“This legislative session has been monumental with regards to our sovereignty, online economic development opportunities, and finally sets us on a pathway for clean drinking water, putting us on a pathway to being accepted by the members of the Maine Legislature,” Neptune said Wednesday.

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