Mills asks Congress to delay action on Golden's tribal equality bill

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Jul. 8—Gov. Janet Mills has asked a congressional committee to delay action on a bill sponsored by fellow Maine Democrat Rep. Jared Golden that would put the state's tribes on equal ground with those in other states.

Mills' chief counsel sent a letter last week to the House Appropriations Committee saying the nature of Maine's 1980 land claims settlement means the measure should be negotiated between state and tribal leaders and that Congress should wait until those negotiations are complete.

A tribal leader responded Friday afternoon, saying state officials aren't moving fast enough.

"It is true that discussions are occurring between the tribal attorneys and governor's office about ... the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, but I am concerned that those discussions are not happening often enough and are not resulting in any meaningful progress towards compromise," Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said in a statement Friday.

Golden, D-2nd District, said he agrees that Maine officials aren't moving fast enough and the disagreement has led to an unusual schism between a Democratic governor and two Democratic representatives. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, is cosponsoring his bill.

"The state has had ample time and opportunity to provide productive suggestions over the past five months," Golden said. "Although they have alluded to a willingness to pursue a compromise with the tribes, I understand little progress has been made thus far."

The measure would mean that Maine tribes would be eligible for more federal programs than they are now because of the nature of the 1980 land settlement that involved the state, federal officials and the tribes.

The federal government had agreed to sue Maine on behalf of the tribes, who claimed that about two-thirds of the state was taken from them in land deals that were made in the late 18th- and early 19th-century without the necessary congressional approval. A negotiated settlement led to the tribes receiving $81.5 million, most of which was used to buy back land.

But under the Maine agreement, tribes and their lands aren't treated as separate sovereign governments, as is the case with most federally-recognized Native American tribes. Instead, they are treated essentially as a type of municipal government, able to regulate zoning, manage local schools, build and maintain roads and run their own police and fire departments, but they remain under the ultimate jurisdiction of the state.

That means the state is required to approve most federal programs that tribes participate in. Francis' statement referred to one that the tribes wanted to take part in but could not because of state objections.

Under the settlement agreement, Maine courts have jurisdiction over tribal members and crimes that take place on tribal lands. And the state's objection meant the tribes couldn't take part in a Violence Against Women Act program that focused on trying to reduce domestic violence, he said.

That led "the Penobscot Nation to lose out on millions of federal dollars that could have been used to strengthen our law enforcement programs and courts, benefitting the entire region," he said.

The tribes and state have also clashed from time to time on environmental, fishing and wildlife rules.

Francis said the relationship between the tribes and the federal government is often more productive than the relationship with the state.

"The federal government and Congress have a government-to-government relationship with the Wabanaki Nations," he said. "It is normal for us to alert them when a historical federal law is harming us and work together to fix it. That's what we are working on with our congressional members and the federal Department of the Interior, which supports the legislation."

But Mills' office argued in the June 28 letter that a negotiated agreement on federal programs, rather then federal legislation, would allow the unique nature of Maine's settlement to remain in force while also expanding the rights of the Maine tribes to benefit from federal programs. And any substantial changes to the relationship between the state and the tribes should be arrived at the same way the original settlement was reached, a top Mills advisor wrote.

"The Settlement Act was negotiated by the State and the Tribes and any amendments should likewise be the product of negotiated agreement," Gerald D. Reid, Mills' chief counsel, wrote in to the chairwomen of the House Appropriations Committee.

Mills negotiated agreements with the tribes for years when she was the state's Attorney General and she has said those agreements remain strong. Delaying action on the legislation would allow such negotiations to continue, she said.

The governor was also able to derail an effort this spring that was supported by a majority of state legislators and would have expanded the Maine tribes' sovereignty rights.

Some Native Americans felt like the measure had a good chance of passage with Democratic control of the Legislature and a Democratic governor. But Mills wanted smaller changes and convinced lawmakers to scuttle the legislation after it was passed by denying the necessary funding, allowing her to avoid a veto.

Golden said his proposal is one that primarily affects Congress' relationship with Maine tribes and should go forward. His proposal is included in next year's funding bill, he said, which is expected to be voted on later this month.

"I remain focused on working with the Wabanaki tribes to move the bill through the legislative process," he said.