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Maine Legislature passes significant tribal bills, balks at others

AUGUSTA, Maine – The Maine Legislature passed a number of significant bills concerning tribal-state relations, the area’s ancient Wabanaki tribes, and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission during the 124th Legislature that ended in early June.

“It was a very busy year,” said Wayne Mitchell, who just completed his first year in the legislature.

Mitchell was elected as the Penobscot Indian Nation’s representative last September after a disastrous year in which almost every legislative effort to improve life for the people of the Wabanaki nations was thwarted.

Last year’s session ended with the Penobscot Nation severing its relationship with the state – a break that still hasn’t healed – but Mitchell said there has been improvement in relations in the legislature.

“It could have been a lot better, but the animosity that was generated prior to the beginning of the year has been somewhat quieted, and there seems to be a lot more good will being offered to the Wabanaki tribes. This might have a lot to do with the number of new young people in the legislature who feel that what the state did against the tribes was wrong. They feel the tribes got a raw deal and they are of a mind of doing everything they can to make it better.”

The Wabanaki tribes in Maine are the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseets and the Micmacs.

Here are the tribal-related bills that passed, and some that didn’t:

An Act To Establish Native American Veterans Day passed. Maine is the first state in the nation to pass a law specifically recognizing the contributions American Indians made and continue to make to America’s many wars. The governor will issue a proclamation every June 21 to recognize Maine Native American Veterans Day, and special ceremonies will mark the day.

“Donald (Soctomah) worked hard on that to get it through. He lobbied a lot of people and it went through unanimously,” Mitchell said. Soctomah could not be reached for comment.

An Act To Improve Tribal-State Relations has been held over, but what emerged was the addition of a tribal representative for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

“This bill began as a modest proposal to promote intergovernmental agreements between the Wabanaki and local, county and state governments,” John Dieffenbacher-Krall, the executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, explained.

“The Houlton Water Authority raised concerns seeking limitations on the Houlton Band of Maliseets’ ability to enter into such agreements. The original language and purpose of the bill was dropped in favor of adding a Maliseet Tribal Representative to join the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Tribal Representatives in the Maine Legislature. The amended form of the bill made it through the House and Senate up to the Special Appropriations Table. It stopped there, and it has been held over.”

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An Act To Clarify the Beano and Bingo Laws as They Apply to Federally Recognized Indian Tribes passed. It allows the Houlton Band of Maliseets to operate high stakes bingo on one of their parcels of land in Houlton.

An Act To Authorize the Operation of Slot Machines on the Passamaquoddy Reservation did not pass. The bill would have allowed the Passamaquoddy Tribe to be licensed to operate not more than 100 slot machines on the Pleasant Point Reservation and Indian Township Reservation in Washington County in conjunction with high-stakes beano. This leaves Maine’s gaming status quo in place: A non-Native out of state company runs Hollywood Slots in Bangor while the Wabanaki nations are denied the same economic development opportunity.

An Act To Amend the 1980 Maine Implementing Act To Authorize the Establishment of a Tribal Court for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and Related Matters passed and was applauded by Dieffenbacher-Krall as “the most significant tribal-state legislation enacted” this session.

“It partially implements the January 2008 Tribal-State Work Group recommendation to give the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians jurisdictional parity with the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation. Provisions of the law include creation of a Maliseet Tribal Court, removing a sunset provision on Maliseet policing authority, and the third attempt to create seats for the Maliseets on MITSC,” he said.

An Act To Fully Implement the Legislative Intent in Prohibiting Offensive Place Names was passed and closes a loophole in the original Offensive Place Names Act by banning the use of the word “squa” in conjunction with other words. The amendment was inspired by members of an intransigent homeowners’ association in a coastal town that fought to keep using the word “squaw,” insisting that it didn’t offend them.

An Act To Amend the Composition of the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse passed and will add a seat to the commission for a tribal member.

An Act To Direct Fines Collected on Tribal Lands to the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation passed. The bill requires the state to return fines collected for civil violations, traffic infractions or Class D or E crimes to the Penobscots and Passamaquoddy when the ticket, complaint, summons, warrant or arrest is made on tribal lands.

A Resolve To Direct Action on Health Disparities of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Washington County passed. The bill directs a group from specific government entities to develop an action plan with the Passamaquoddy health directors “to help reduce health disparities between Passamaquoddy tribal members and others in Washington County and the general population. The group is required to report to the legislature’s health and human services committee by January 15, 2011.

A proposal to sell special pull tabs where state lottery tickets are sold to raise funds for the Penobscot Indian Nation’s Boys and Girls Club Endowment Fund did not pass.

“For the last 13 years some kind of conservation group has had a monopoly on (these pull tabs) and have made tens of millions of dollars very quietly sitting back doing this, and in my floor testimony I spoke to the fact that there are other worthy causes that ought to be able to have a bite of the apple,” Mitchell said.

He intends to pursue the issue during the next session.

MITSC received $78,000 in the state biennial budget in both 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. While that amount represents a 7.9 percent increase over fiscal year 2009, it is roughly $37,000 less than the commission’s $105,000 budget. The tribes have refused to provide financial support for MITSC until the state responds to requests to develop a collaborative work plan and budget-setting process for the commission. As a result of the budget shortfall, the executive director’s work week has been cut to 30 hours.