AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s tribal leaders are asking the Legislature to require that state agencies consult with tribes before beginning work on policy changes that could affect their communities.
Supporters claim the bill would help address long-standing tensions by creating more formalized lines of communication between the state and Maine’s federally recognized tribes. The language of the bill, LD 1625, would require agencies to communicate and consult with tribal government “before the agency may propose, adopt or implement legislation, rules or policies that may materially affect” the tribes.
Rep. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative, said he modeled his bill after orders that were signed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama with federally recognized tribes.
Soctomah said that despite pledges of partnership, he does not believe the existing system of coordination between the tribes and state government is working adequately.
“It’s always been my view that if we are really partners then we should discuss issues that affect the tribes,” Soctomah told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Soctomah’s bill is another sign that leaders within Maine’s Native American communities remain dissatisfied with their relations with state officials.
Last week, the head of the intergovernmental Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, Paul Bisulca, said he would not serve another term largely because of frustrations over the state’s failure to address issues important to the tribes.
Among Bisulca’s top concerns was what he said was the lack of a process where tribes’ concerns can be aired and addressed by the executive and legislative branches.
Chief Brenda Commander with the Houlton Band of Maliseets told lawmakers that passage of LD 1625 would help establish formal government-to-government relationships between the state and her tribe. The lack of such a relationship is a point of contention in her community, Commander said.
“This legislation has the potential to transform the strained and difficult working relationship that currently exists between the state and tribal governments,” Commander said.
As one example, Commander gave lawmakers details of a 2005 incident involving the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and disposal of contaminated soil near tribal housing. While that incident eventually was resolved and the DEP since has instituted its own consultation process, it only fueled suspicion and an-ger toward the state among tribal members, she said.
David Slagger, a member of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, acknowledged that both sides need to cooperate in order to improve relations. Slagger said the bill shows that tribal leaders want to work in partnership with the state.
“There has been a lot of hurt, a lot of hurt,” Slagger said. “And I think now is a good time to grab hold of that hand and embrace it as a true partner.”
A representative from the Aroostook Band of Micmacs also endorsed the bill.
At one point, committee chairman Sen. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, asked Soctomah whether it would be better to ask the Baldacci administration to issue an executive order similar to the ones issued by the two presidents. Soctomah responded that he believed the Legislature should play a role as well.
David Farmer, spokesman for the governor, said the administration would review the bill.
“We are always open to considering ways to improve the relationship between the state and the tribal governments,” Farmer said.