Skip to main content

Maine tribal-state commission withdraws from state budget process

AUGUSTA, Maine – The chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission said the commission will no longer participate in the state Legislature’s budget process because, according to the statutes, decisions about the commission’s funding and how it is spent must be made on a government-to-government basis between the tribes and the state.

“Historically, we’ve allowed ourselves to come under the Legislature’s de facto control. We want to make sure everyone understands we’re not going to participate in the budget process anymore. We’re not going before the Judiciary Committee or the Appropriations Committee; and if they decide not to pay us a nickel, so be it; but they also have the responsibility to fund MITSC’s operation,” said MITSC Chairman Paul Bisulca.

Bisulca’s decision follows a flameout regarding MITSC’s funding and activities, which were criticized severely by the chairman and members of the judiciary committee at the end of last spring’s contentious legislative session. The session devastated the relationship between the tribes and the state and caused the Penobscot Indian Nation to sever its relationship with the state completely.

Lawmakers turned down initiatives for tribal economic development and changes to the Maine Settlement Act that would have affirmed tribal sovereignty.

Turning its attention then to MITSC, the Judiciary Committee said the commission had overstepped its bounds, and then slashed its budget by $38,000. The money was later restored by Gov. John Baldacci.

“The Judiciary Committee refers to itself as the committee of jurisdiction. However, it has no legally based jurisdiction over MITSC. It is simply the liaison committee for the state with MITSC,” Bisulca said

Last spring, Bisulca asked state Attorney General Steven Lowe for an opinion on the commission’s authority to issue fishing permits and collect and spend the fees. Lowe’s Aug. 29 opinion clarifies major issues regarding MITSC’s authority and funding.

“Although the operation of MITSC is governed by state statute, it does not necessarily follow that the legislature intended that these statutes [regarding the expenditure of funds] apply to it,” Lowe said.

Quoting from the Legislature’s own description of MITSC, Lowe wrote, “Created as part of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement of 1980, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission exists as the result of an agreement between the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Indian Nation and the state. The commission is not a state agency, but is a hybrid tribal-state entity.”

MITSC has the authority to issue fishing permits on waters over which it has jurisdiction, collect fees and use the fees as it sees fit in carrying out its mission, he said.

The statutes regarding MITSC’s funding say the commission can receive money from “any source, allocations, appropriations, loans, grants and contributions or other things of value.”

MITSC can receive its full state allotment each year simply by requesting it. The tribes also contribute funding that goes directly to the commission, and not through the state treasury like the funding for state agencies.

The judiciary committee last spring heatedly objected to the salary paid to MITSC Executive Director John Dieffenbacher-Krall, a contracted employee who works in a home office. Lowe’s ruling clarified MITSC’s authority over its employees.

“MITSC is also authorized to employ personnel it considers necessary to effectively discharge its duties and responsibilities, and these employees are not subject to state personnel laws or rules.”

Neither the Judiciary Committee nor any other legislative body has jurisdiction over how much money MITSC is to receive or how it is to be spent.

“Through their representatives on the Commission, the State and the tribes will collectively make decisions about how best to spend their funds to further the purposes of their statutory charge,” Lowe wrote.

MITSC has six state-appointed members, six tribe-appointed members, and the chairman, who has voting rights. According to the statutes, MITSC’s broad mandate is to continually review the effectiveness of the Maine Implementing Act and the social, economic and legal relationship between the state and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation, and make recommendations. Maine’s fourth indigenous tribe – the Aroostook Band of Maliseets – was not part of the agreement.

Dieffenbacher-Krall wrote to the state’s budget analyst Aug. 13, declining to sign a budget guideline report stating MITSC’s requested funding level for fiscal year 2010 – 11.

“That decision must be made by all of the parties of the Maine Implementing Act. … The appropriate forum for such a discussion is the annual Assembly of Governors and Chiefs.”

The Assembly of Governors and Chiefs is a unique meeting of the state governor and the chiefs and governors of the Wabanaki Tribes – the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet. It usually takes place once a year in early summer, but there was no meeting this summer because of the breakdown in relations after the legislative session.

“There should be a special budget process for MITSC, ideally at the Assembly of Governors and Chiefs, that works with both the tribes and the state budget process; and that should be one of the primary agenda items of the assembly: what the future work plan is, how much money is it going to take to implement it, how are we going to appropriate it – that should be decided by the respective sovereign leaders,” Dieffenbacher-Krall told Indian Country Today.

He said he hopes to schedule an assembly this fall.

“We’re trying to get it back to where it’s supposed to be. A government-to-government relationship doesn’t say one party is superior and dictates to the other. There’s been this creep over decades and we’re trying to get it back to what it was originally in the agreement.”