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David Sharp
Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed a law Monday giving control of mobile sports betting to Native American tribes in Maine while reducing the tribal tax burden and creating a framework for greater collaboration.

The governor touted the new law as the most significant tribal bill in decades, even though it does not go as far as a separate proposal that would have provided far-reaching sovereignty for the state's tribes.

“This law provides meaningful economic opportunities for the Wabanaki Nations. It incentivizes investment in tribal communities, and it formalizes a collaboration process on policy that sets the foundation for a stronger relationship in the future,” the governor said in a statement.

The law legalizes sports betting in Maine, with tribes getting exclusive rights to online wagering while existing casinos can conduct in-person betting. The law goes into effect 90 days after the session ends.

It was a bittersweet moment for the tribes because the law falls short of the sovereignty that they had sought.

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The sovereignty bill would alter the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980, allowing tribes in the state be treated the same other federally recognized tribes. The law currently treats reservations like municipalities, subject to state law, in Maine.

The legislative session ended with no final action on the sovereignty bill, though it's possible lawmakers could revive the stalled proposal when they return May 9. The governor vowed to veto the bill.

Protesters concerned with tribal sovereignty laws gather at the State House, Monday, April 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Maine tribes gave up some sovereignty rights to the state when they settled their land claims more than 40 years ago. They've battled ever since to regain the same rights as the nation's other tribes. The debate now begins in the Legislature. (AP Photo/David Sharp)

The Wabanaki tribes — Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy tribes at Indian Township and Pleasant Point, Houlton Band of Maliseets and Mi’kmaq — have been heartened by legislative support this year. But the tribal chiefs said in a statement that the long-term goal continues to be full sovereignty.

“Permanent sovereignty restoration remains the legislative priority for the Wabanaki Nations, and it will continue to be our priority moving forward,” the tribal chiefs said last week in a statement.

Lawmakers cracked open the door to sovereignty by allowing the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point to manage its own water supply, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instead of state regulatory agencies. The governor signed the bill.

The bill sponsored by Mills to funnel online sports gambling revenue to the tribes was offered as something of an olive branch from the governor who opposed full sovereignty but has vowed to help the tribes.

The governor said it represented continued progress, building on her campaign vow to improve tribal relations.

She noted that she previously gave a posthumous pardon to a tribal attorney, supported the renaming of Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day and worked to ensure strict water quality standards to protect sustenance fishing.

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