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Maine governor restores tribal-state commission funding

AUGUSTA, Maine - The funding that was cut from the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission;s budget by the judiciary committee has been restored by the governor.

MITSC issued a press release July 7 thanking Gov. John Baldacci for signing two year-end financial orders transferring $38,000 to the commission - the amount that had been slashed from the state budget toward the end of the legislative session by a unanimous vote of the judiciary committee. The committee oversees the commission.

''Gov. Baldacci has consistently supported MITSC with his direct personal encouragement and tangible financial support. As MITSC chair, it is helpful having a governor who understands the complexities of tribal-state relations and the commission's financial needs in meeting our responsibilities under the 1980 Land Claims Settlement. Restoring the cut made by the Legislature will permit us to continue our work through the winter and position us to raise additional funds to cover our remaining funding shortfall,'' MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca said in the release.

At a May 21 meeting attended by Baldacci, Senate President Beth Edmonds, House Speaker Glenn Cummings and MITSC, Baldacci vowed to find the commission some supplemental funding to keep it running until 2009, Bisulca said. Without the funding, the commission would have run out of money in early November, he noted.

The restoration of MITSC's funding was not as enthusiastically embraced by Democratic Sen. Barry Hobbins, co-chair of the judiciary committee, who faulted MITSC representatives for a lack of ''political common sense and diplomacy'' in failing to follow the chain of command, among a litany of other things.

''We're the committee of jurisdiction; and they went to the president of the Senate and asked for a meeting with the speaker of the House without telling the committee chairmen and they didn't invite us, and they went to the governor and bad-mouthed the committee of jurisdiction, which politically isn't a very smart thing to do.

''Luckily, I'm a professional. I've been around the Legislature a long time. I'm a professional and I'm not going to - because of the lack of competency and common sense of certain representatives of MITSC - I'm not going to hold that against any of the tribes, especially after I had stuck my neck out politically for the Maliseets,'' Hobbins told Indian Country Today, referring to legislation he supported that would have put the Maliseets on equal footing with the other two Settlement Act tribes in terms of land acquisition.

Bisulca said that MITSC had operated with ''essentially flat funding'' for several years, which limited it to a part-time operation with minimal staffing. Until last year, the single employee, an executive director, worked around 20 hours a week.

Last year, the governor, appropriations committee and legislative leadership supported a $38,000 increase for MITSC after the increase was unanimously rejected by the judiciary committee. The increase allowed the executive director's role to expand to a full time position.

That was part of the problem, from Hobbins' perspective.

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''It all comes down to one thing: the money goes to the executive director. That's the irony of the whole thing and, quite frankly, from what we saw we were not impressed,'' he said.

''I believe I speak for the committee. It was a little uncomfortable because the only thing they were advocating for was money for contracted staff. First of all, I think the mission of MITSC went far beyond what the statutory requirement allowed. They are supposed to be advisory, not a committee of advocacy; and quite frankly, I think that should be looked at and we should either beef up MITSC's role or change the format.''

MITSC is an intergovernmental entity created by the 1980 Maine Implementing Act, the legislation passed to accompany the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. Its role is to continually monitor the effectiveness of the Settlement Act and the social, economic and legal relationship between the state government and the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes, and make recommendations.

The commission took a lead role last year in facilitating the work of a Tribal-State Work Group appointed by Baldacci to review the Maine Implementing Act and make recommendations for amendments that the tribes sought to reaffirm tribal sovereignty.

In the 28 years since the passage of the settlement and implementation acts, the state Legislature and courts have worked effectively hand in hand to erode almost all aspects of tribal sovereignty.

After the last legislative session, which saw four Indian-related initiatives denied, the Passamaquoddy Tribe backed off from the state relationship, the Penobscot Nation severed all ties to the state, and both the Penobscot and Maliseets withdraw their $10,000 voluntary contributions to MITSC until the state funding was restored.

Bisulca hoped the restored funding would be the first step toward improving the tribal-state relationship.

But Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said more than MITSC funding has to change in order to solve the ''real issues'' in the tribal-state relationship.

''I think it's great of the governor. The organization has some energy and they're trying. We don't always agree with them, but if MITSC could serve in the capacity it was meant to serve in, I think it would be much more efficient not just for the tribe but the whole relationship, really. You can give them all the money in the world, but if the process is the same and they can't have an influence on policy, then to me it's a moot point.''

As for the tribe contributing $10,000 or attending MITSC meetings, ''I don't think we'll be doing that any time in the near future,'' Francis said.