In this Jan. 30, 2020, file photo, Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe speaks at the Bangor Daily News office. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature passed a bill Thursday that would allow tribes to operate gaming businesses, scoring a win for advocates of a broad but stalled sovereignty push resisted so far by Gov. Janet Mills.

The issue of tribal gaming has been hotly contested in Maine for years. The state has no competitive process to approve casinos, so casinos in Bangor and Oxford have been approved by voters. Tribal bids have been shot down. Maine’s high court declined in 2018 to weigh in on whether tribes should be allowed to establish casinos on their land without state approval.

The bill from Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, would amend state law to allow tribes to operate gaming facilities under a federal law governing gaming for other recognized tribes in the country. An amendment proposed by the tribes would require tribes to negotiate casino revenue sharing and operations with the state. 

It passed in a 97-40 vote early Thursday, with almost all Democrats and 22 Republicans backing the measure, and later passed the Senate 22-13. Geographic opposition remains around the existing casinos, with Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, joining only two other Democrats to vote against the bill in the House.

Gaming has long been touted by tribes in the state as a way to build their economies. When Hollywood Casino opened in Bangor in 2005, it devastated the Penobscot Nation’s long-standing beano business that closed 10 years later. But Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe called it “a small piece of the puzzle” to righting historical wrongs.

“Our ancestors watched from inside the bounds of our reservations as non-tribal members got rich from cutting down our trees on our land, leaving us with little,” she said. 

Collings’ measure gets at the heart of the argument that has been taking place in Augusta since Mills, a Democrat, took office pledging to restore state-tribal relationships after decades of strain and rocky years under Republican Gov. Paul LePage. That culminated with all but one of the tribes pulling tribal representatives from the State House.

Mills has made some strides, including banning tribal mascots at public schools and restoring some domestic violence jurisdiction to tribal courts. But she has also fought tribes’ sweeping sovereignty effort and has been loath to overhaul the 1980 agreement governing state-tribal relations, arguing that efforts to implement a task force’s recommendations are too broad.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted with the tribes on that package last year, but it never moved forward amid the coronavirus pandemic and the effort was set aside in 2021 amid renewed opposition from the governor. Gaming is one of the most potent points of conflict and the Mills administration has reiterated concerns about bypassing a public vote.

“My worst-case scenario is that the bill before us allows big, out-of-state casino operators to carve up Maine into gambling fiefdoms on Indian-purchased land across the state,” said Rep. Chris Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, who opposed the measure.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...