Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana speaks at a press conference on April 22, 2021 at Binette Park on the Old Town Riverfront. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The ambitious effort to change Maine’s relationship with indigenous tribes was stalled for the second straight year on Tuesday as a pandemic session stretched already fraught negotiations well into the spring.

Lawmakers reinvigorated efforts to restore tribal authority over land use in 2019 after Democrats took full control of Augusta. A task force produced 22 recommendations on changes ranging from natural resources to gaming and taxation. The tribes had momentum when a legislative panel approved a slate of bills last year, but they died when a lame-duck Legislature adjourned.

They may be back to square one. Legislators and tribal leaders began questioning if the bill could receive the attention it would need during a session already strained by the pandemic last week, said Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana. By Sunday, there was a “pretty clear possibility” the major sovereignty bill and others would be tabled until 2021, she said.

But the decision was not widely known until Monday night, surprising supporters, some lawmakers and the office of Gov. Janet Mills by Tuesday, when sovereignty measures were set for public hearings in the Judiciary Committee. The Democratic governor’s office used the hearing to oppose the again push, laying bare a lack of progress so far this year.

The major bill from Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, was only drafted last week and aims to amend state law that arose out of a 1980 settlement between the state and the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Tribes. The law effectively allows the state to govern tribes like municipalities, giving them different rights than other federally recognized tribes, something tribes have said prevents them from growing economically and culturally.

“As we’ve seen with tribal bills, committee work can take quite a bit of time,” Dana said. “There’s a need to really [take] a fine-tooth comb to a lot of things the tribes bring forward, and there was some concern that we couldn’t get the bill to a place where everybody is on board with it.”

Talbot-Ross said the decision to table was made because there was a need to work with Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office on new provisions. She said the delay was a positive development that would benefit the legislation in the end.

“We just need more time to ensure that the language is as clean as possible,” she said.

The bill still received dozens of largely supportive comments Tuesday, including from Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. But those may not be enough to assuage the Mills administration.

Mills has made some strides with the tribes over contentious issues, including criminal justice jurisdiction over domestic violence on tribal lands and water quality standards. She was also supportive of changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and banning American Indian mascots from public schools.

But her administration has deep reservations about provisions of the bill that would require the state to consult with the tribes before passing policy that could affect them, as well as the ramifications of transferring property and natural resources authority to the tribes after local communities have enjoyed them for years. Before the panel on Tuesday, Mills’ chief legal adviser, Jerry Reid, expressed “serious concerns” on Tuesday about Talbot Ross’ bill.

“Our hope and intent was to work with tribal representatives in an effort to negotiate amendments to these bills or an alternative bill that could be something we could support,” Reid said. “Those efforts have not borne fruit at this point.”

Underscoring the disparate interests opposing parts of the sovereignty push, Carrabassett Valley Town Manager David Cota said his town has concerns about how trust lands held by tribes across Maine could be affected. The bill would allow the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes to access and develop those lands without state or local approval.

“Essentially, a nation with 24,000 acres — or one-half of our town’s land base — would be created in our town with no vote of our citizens,” he said.

Those hesitations could prove challenging to passing big changes. Tackling the bills last year was seen as a challenge due to the 2020 session’s short length even before the pandemic hit. Dana said the development was “frustrating” but hoped consensus could come.

“I think anything you’re trying to do politically with tribes in Maine has a certain amount of risk,” she said.