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'The nail in the coffin'

AUGUSTA, Maine - Donna Loring, the Penobscot Indian Nation's representative in the Maine state Legislature, will continue her work there with the tribe's support, despite the nation having cut its ties to the state in the aftermath of a legislative session that saw every effort to squash the attempt to improve the lives of the Wabanaki people.

Although it was the collective defeat of four Indian-related bills that prompted the Penobscot to break away from the state, circumstances surrounding Gov. John Baldacci's actions to defeat a slot bill provided what Chief Kirk Francis called ''the nail in the coffin.'' The nation now plans to introduce Class II gaming without state ''permission.''

Indian Country Today explored the issues with Mike Mahoney, the governor's spokesman and general counsel, and then asked Loring to respond to his answers. Loring is elected by tribal members.

Indian Country Today: What is the governor's response to the news that the Penobscot Indian Nation is cutting its ties to the state of Maine? What, if anything, does he think the state loses by this action, and has he considered making any efforts to restore relations with the Penobscots?

Mike Mahoney: Obviously, the governor believes that both the nation and the state of Maine are better served by the tribes and the state working cooperatively.

Donna Loring: I believe this very strongly, but there is no real effort on this administration's part to recognize us as partners in anything.

Mahoney: The gaming issue aside, his administration has been publicly supportive of many tribal initiatives, including the Tribal-State Work Group's 2008 recommendation to exempt the tribes from Maine's Freedom of Access Act.

Loring: It is difficult to set the gaming issue aside, since it is our only economic development tool. We are continuously left out of any economic initiatives or ventures that are purposed. We are never invited on economic trips to other countries, nor are we included in the state's tourism ventures. Just pick up any brochure or magazine about Maine and you will not see one thing about Maine tribes. It is true that the governor has been publicly supportive of a few initiatives. It is one thing to publicly support us and another to actively support us.

ICT: Several sources have said the governor sent out at least five people who worked vigorously to ''persuade'' legislators to switch their previous votes in support of the Penobscots' slot bill. Frankly, they said arms were twisted and promises made to support bills presented by these legislators in exchange for flipping their votes. Why did the governor manipulate the process in this way, rather than simply vetoing the bill and allowing the legislators to cleanly override the veto or vote the bill down?

Mahoney: Those sources are incorrect. The governor in no way ''manipulated the process.''

Loring: The governor did indeed manipulate the process! Legislators came to me and said, ''You better get on things because the second floor [the governor's office] is talking to us and telling us not to override the governor.''

Mahoney: Under Maine's constitution, the governor could have ''pocket-vetoed'' the legislation, meaning that the Legislature would have not had an opportunity to try to override his veto before the session adjourned. The governor instead gave the Legislature the chance to override the veto.

Loring: He only gave us that chance when he had leadership agree not to vote against him on the veto override. I know he did this because I spoke to the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House, as well as their assistants in both houses. It was imperative for him to have leadership on his side because they are the ones who control the caucuses and the committee chairs. They also see how the vote is going during the vote and can close the vote at their discretion.

The cards were indeed stacked against us. Our slots bill lost by two votes. We had two yes votes that were absent and at least two yes votes that didn't make it to their seats to vote. The speaker closed the vote before they got there.

When the vote was over, I asked the majority leader, Rep. Hannah Pingree, to hold the bill for me while I got someone who voted against it to bring the bill back for reconsideration. Rep. Pingree agreed and the plan was to take it up the next day. That evening, Rep. Pingree told me - very apologetically - that the second floor had a major ''blow up'' and she had to let the bill go. The bill was now dead. I asked her if it was the governor and she said yes.

Rep. Pingree has aspirations of being elected speaker of the House next session and this governor is in [office] for two more years. She could not afford to antagonize him and make him an enemy, as she needs his support. If this is not interfering with the legislative process, then I don't know what is!

ICT: How does the governor justify his often-repeated statement that gaming issues must be approved by voters - even though there is no such mandate in Maine law - while he himself has expanded the state's gaming revenues through Powerball and scratch tickets without these expansions going to a vote?

Mahoney: The governor believes that expansions of gaming so alter the fabric of the state that all of the citizens - not just the elected members of the legislative and executive branches - deserve to have their voices heard. That is why he has opposed legislative efforts to bring slots and other gaming into Maine. State voters as recently as 2007 rejected a proposal for an expansion of gaming in Maine. The governor opposes expanded gaming, regardless of who has made the proposal or where geographically it would be located.

Loring: I notice Mr. Mahoney does not even try to answer the question about why the governor can expand gaming without going to the voters! The governor's actions cannot be justified. It is clear discrimination. The referendum argument does not hold water. This governor signed into law a bill that recognized gay rights, even though the Maine citizens had voted against this twice in referendums.

ICT: What is the governor's response to the Penobscots' stated plan to introduce Class II machines?

Mahoney: The governor sincerely hopes that, despite its disagreement with the state on gaming policy, the tribe will continue to abide by the law.

Loring: You can be assured that the Penobscot Nation will abide by federal law as approved by Congress.