Donna Loring: Blame tribal-state breakdown on commission leaders

Posted July 28, 2008, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 12:12 a.m.

Several recent articles have suggested the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee is to blame for the breakdown in tribal-state relations. The breakdown has been blamed on the committee’s reduction in funding for the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the failure to support LD 2221, a tribal work study group bill.

I have been a member of the Judiciary Committee for almost nine years. It is my feeling that the breakdown was fueled to a large extent by the aggressive and overbearing manner in which MITSC leadership has operated. It has served to alienate the Judiciary Committee, tribal chiefs, legislative leadership and commissioners.

MITSC came before the committee with a request to increase its budget at a time when all other departments were being asked to cut programs and services during the first round of cuts to address the first $99 million budget shortfall. The most glaring item in the proposed budget was a line item that would pay the MITSC executive director $91,786 for FY08 plus $2,500 for travel.

MITSC justified its request by saying it had expanded its duties. The committee felt that this expansion came at a bad time for economic reasons and that MITSC was taking on duties over and above its mission. The committee refused to grant the requested increase.

MITSC went to the governor who agreed to give the requested increase of $38,000. MITSC’ s end run around the Judiciary Committee’ s decision was a breech of legislative process. That, in and of itself, would be reason to kill a bill. Still, the increase of $38,000 then showed up in their budget during the second round of cuts when funding was not just being cut, but programs and services were being totally eliminated.

The Judiciary Committee recommended that this increase be taken away as we felt the funding could do some good in services or programs in dire need. The excessive salary was just too much for us to ignore.

The Appropriations Committee approved the cut. MITSC then went to the media and through outside pressure got its funding restored. Its present budget for FY08 is now $110,227. That does not count the tribes’ potential contributions of $11,500 each.

A second issue is failure of the Tribal State Work Group bill, LD 2221, that sought to boost the tribes’ authority. I did not participate in the Tribal State Work Group for two reasons. First, I was once told by an assistant attorney general that the state got such a good deal out of the Settlement Act that they would never want to change it. I felt this work group was an effort in futility and a waste of tribal resources and time.

Second, I felt that even if everyone including the Attorney General’ s Office agreed on specific changes, the next step was not immediate legislation but a process of educating the remaining legislators in the House and the Senate. Changes in the Land Claims Settlement Act will not take place without extensive education on both sides, legal experts who have enough time to hammer these issues out, and an attorney general and chief executive who support the changes and will advocate for them.

Finally, a bill to add land in Argyle to Penobscot Nation reservation land was also defeated. The bill was brought up in the last week of session and landed in the middle of heated debates and hard feelings over LD 2221.

The Penobscot Nation Housing Authority had requested the bill so that it could build 50 much-needed housing units on reservation land. The housing director had all the contracts approved and was told by MITSC the best thing to do was to put in a bill to change the status of the land to reservation land. The governor’ s office agreed to put in a bill to accomplish this at the last minute. This bill came before the committee when tempers were high and distrust was rampant.

I knew, given the failing relations on both sides, that this bill had little to no chance of passing. The committee first voted to pass this bill, but members then sought to reverse the vote after a rumor surfaced that the tribe was going to use this land for their slot machines. This was a ridiculous and incredulous rumor but nevertheless committee members and other legislators believed it.

I suggested instead that the Land Use Regulation Commission be directed to work with the tribe on housing with neither asserting jurisdiction, an approach that was adopted.

It is true that tribal legislation suffered in this session. If the Tribal-State Working Group process were handled in a slower and wiser manner, we would have had a more productive session. MITSC leadership has been involved in all of the above and has made the legislative atmosphere hostile. The tribes and the state need to clarify the duties and the mission of MITSC or they need to totally restructure the organization.

Donna Loring of Bradley is the Penobscot Nation representative to the Maine House of Representatives.

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