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Backlash: Maliseet denounces state;s budget cut

Tribe withdraws contributions until state restores $38,000

HOULTON, Maine - The chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians has written a scathing letter to Maine Gov. John Baldacci, castigating the government for ;'unilaterally'' slashing $38,000 from the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, and announcing the tribe will withhold its contribution to the commission until state funding is restored.

''By unilaterally cutting its contribution to the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, Maine State Government has effectively decided what level of services MITSC can provide and constrained its operations. This action harms the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. The State of Maine does not have the right to do this under the Maine Implementing Act. MITSC is comprised of four sovereign governments. No individual member government should dictate to the other three how MITSC will function,'' Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander wrote.

The MITSC was created by the Maine Implementing Act, a state bill passed to implement the 1980 federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The commission is mandated to continually review the settlement act's effectiveness and monitor the social, legal and economic relationship among the tribes and the state.

The cut represents almost 53 percent of the state's contribution to the commission's budget. The Penobscot Indian Nation, the Passamaquoddy Indians and the Maliseets voluntarily contribute $10,000 each.

Commander said she was ''shocked'' to learn of the state's unilateral action.

''Perhaps even more startling was the failure to consult with my Tribe and the other Wabanaki Tribes that belong to MITSC,'' she wrote to Baldacci April 23.

Commander noted the general breakdown in tribal-state relations, citing the recent failure of the governor's appointed Tribal-State Work Group to pass amendments to the MIA that would affirm the Wabanaki tribes' inherent sovereignty.

''To begin rebuilding tribal-state relations, I believe that the State of Maine needs to demonstrate through concrete actions that this relationship is important,'' she wrote.

An initial step would be restoring MITSC's budget.

''That action would denote the State of Maine's acceptance that all the parties to MITSC enjoy equal authority; a prerequisite for healthy tribal-state relations,'' Commander wrote.

Until then, the Maliseets will suspend their voluntary contribution to MITSC, Commander wrote. She also recommended a ''confidence-building'' summit meeting between tribal leaders and legislative leaders ''to share what they perceive led to this breakdown in tribal-state relations and jointly identify how we rebuild a productive relationship founded on respect and recognition of each other's sovereignty.''

Commander's letter came on the heels of a disastrous legislative session for Maine's Wabanaki tribes. In addition to cutting MITSC's budget, the Legislature cut almost all of the tribes' proposed amendments to the MIA, including a crucial amendment that would have exempted the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes from the state's Freedom of Access Act.

Legislators stopped a bill that would have converted 700 acres of Penobscot trust land into reservation land for a housing project. And several legislators who had supported a bill that would have allowed the Penobscots to operate 100 slots machines on tribal land flipped their votes when Baldacci vetoed the bill.

These state actions caused the Penobscots to cut its ties with the state, beginning with the tribe's withdrawal from MITSC. Passamaquoddy Chief Rick Doyle also notified MITSC that his tribe at Sipayik would no longer ''officially'' participate in the commission. Indian Island Passamaquoddy Gov. William Nicholas has not taken action yet.

Commander told Baldacci that ''some positive initiatives'' to improve tribal-state relations have been offset by these ''substantial setbacks,'' particularly the failure to exempt the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot from the Freedom of Access Act.

The exemption was ''critical'' because it would affirm the tribes' inherent sovereignty and strengthen the protection afforded to tribal government under the MIA, Commander wrote.

The Maliseet Band currently is not subject to the state's Freedom of Access Act, but it will be, she noted with irony, if it approves the amendment bill passed by the Legislature; and so, approving the bill would actually diminish the Maliseets' sovereignty.

Michael Mahoney, the governor's chief legal counsel, told Indian Country Today that ''a formal response to [Commander's] letter is in the works.''

''I can tell you, as well, that the governor's original proposal was to cut the MITSC budget by roughly $2,500, as part of his across-the-board cost-cutting plan. It was the Legislature that deepened that cut to $38,000 in the final budget that went to his desk,'' he said.

MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall acknowledged that the governor did not initiate the commission's budget cut.

''It was initiated by the Judiciary Committee. Ultimately, though, the governor signed this bill and he's responsible for whatever's in that legislation. Does it make a statement about how much the state values its tribal-state relationship? Doesn't sound like very much.''

He said he hopes the state responds quickly to Commander's outreach and that ''dialogue ensues.''

''I'm concerned that significant leaders of some parts of state government have a two-pronged approach. One is to say we don't really understand what the concerns are. And the other is by not really acknowledging that there's perhaps an attempt to minimize it. Sometimes people in power choose that course of action.''

The state acted illegitimately by unilaterally cutting MITSC's budget without consultation with and approval from the tribes, Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

''It was a unilateral decision-making process and that violates the Maine Implementing Act.''

While initiatives are under way to restore MITSC's funding, he said he is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Under the worst-case scenario, with the budget cut in place and no fees from the tribes, MITSC's budget would be reduced to around $34,000. His job would be cut from 35 hours a week to around 13 hours a week.

''That's not acceptable to my family. I've already started looking for other work.''