AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday vetoed the latest effort to allow Maine tribes to run gaming businesses on their land, likely dooming a bill that came from the sidelines of a sovereignty push largely resisted by the state.
State law effectively requires anyone looking to establish a casino to put a ballot question to voters. Tribes here have argued for years they should be allowed to conduct gambling the same way other federally recognized tribes do under federal law, but a 1980 land-claims settlement between Maine, the federal government and tribes exempts them from that provision.
A recent bill from Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, would allow the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy tribes and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to conduct gaming operations while requiring the tribes to negotiate casino operations and revenue sharing with the state.
Tribal gaming pushes have been opposed by the state’s two casinos, whose owners have viewed them as a threat to their businesses and an attempt to circumvent state laws. Mills cited those arguments in her veto message, citing the bill’s lack of restrictions on where gaming facilities could be placed and the fact that new casinos would not need voter approval.
She also said it was likely the law would be challenged in court after a 1996 court case found the federal law did not apply in Maine, calling such fights “troublesome and unnecessary.” The bill suggests some of the revenue and logistical concerns around tribes controlling the facilities can be resolved in a compact, but Mills said she was not convinced the tribes would negotiate.
The decision is likely to aggravate tensions between the tribes and Mills. The governor began her tenure in 2019 with a promise to overhaul a bad state-tribal relationship and acted to solve a longstanding water quality dispute with tribes and signed a bill to ban Native American school mascots. But she has angered the tribes with opposition to parts of a sovereignty push spanning the issues of criminal justice, gaming, taxation and natural resources.
Some tribal chiefs had spoken with the governor earlier in the week to discuss the gaming issue. Mills wrote in her veto letter that she asked tribes and their legislative backers to recall from her desk and take it up again next year, but that was a nonstarter for the chiefs.
But that was a nonstarter for the chiefs. While Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis thanked the nonpartisan staff and legislators for working on the issue in a news release, others were more obvious with their frustration.
Chief Maggie Dana of the Passamaquoddy at Pleasant Point accused Mills of “paying lip service” to tribal issues and hit her for only meeting with tribes two times in as many years to discuss changing the law that governs the state-tribal relationship.
“The Governor opted to side with large out of state corporations instead of rural Maine,” said Chief Clarissa Sabattis of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, alluding to the owners of the Bangor and Oxford casinos.
Mills’ veto will likely be taken up on Thursday, as the law requires lawmakers to act on a veto within seven days. It seems unlikely supporters will have the two-thirds votes necessary in both chambers to override it. The measure passed the Senate in a 22-13 vote in June.