A bill allowing Native American tribes in Maine to pursue retail casino gambling died in committee only a week after being introduced. The Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs tabled Rep. Ben Collings’ Act Regarding Tribal Gaming alongside two other gambling bills during sessions on May 22 and May 24.
Collings’ bill, LD 1944, continued a decades-long political debate around tribal gaming. So far, that debate has failed to benefit Indigenous peoples in the state materially.
However, it was reportedly serving as a placeholder. That is, it was a way to keep the conversation going until Maine lawmakers addressed larger issues of tribal sovereignty. It’s expected the state will see a new sovereignty bill within a few weeks.
Collings told the Portland Press Herald (PPH):
Every session, I put in a tribal gaming bill, and it’s up to the tribes to decide what to do with it. Gaming could be very positive for the tribes and the surrounding area, and go a long way toward fixing things for Maine tribes, but sovereignty is the number one priority. Sovereignty first.
The other gambling bills sidelined by the Committee included a second by Collings. HP 1275 would have legalized electronic bingo and historical horse racing (HHR) terminals. The other bill, LD 1777, aimed to legalize online casinos. That one, from House Rep. Laura Supica, would have given the tribes exclusivity over the new vertical.
Governor Mills Vetoed Last Tribal Gambling Bill
Last year, the Maine state legislature adjourned without acting on a tribal sovereignty bill. There was no vote because Gov. Janet Mills promised to veto the legislation.
It wasn’t a hollow threat. Mills had already vetoed Collings’ previous tribal gambling bill, LD 554. That’s despite it having passed with strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Unfortunately, it would have needed a two-thirds supermajority to override the governor’s veto and did not reach that threshold.
In her veto letter, Mills wrote:
This bill provides no predictability or meaningful limitations on where tribal gaming may occur, or on the size of each facility. The tribal gaming facilities that the legislation would authorize could be large or small, anything from a grand casino to a few slot machines in a convenience store, and the State and adjacent non-tribal communities would have little or no influence over their placement.
Bill 554 would have granted Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, and Passamoquoddy tribes in Maine (collectively the Wabanaki Alliance) the same sovereignty afforded to over 500 other tribes under US federal law.
For the governor’s part, Mills wrote in the veto that she believes things should change for Indigenous people in the state.
I believe that Maine’s Federally-recognized Tribes have been unfairly excluded from the opportunity to operate their own gaming facility — a problem that I believe can and should be rectified.
However, Mills’ voting record calls into question her support for full tribal sovereignty.
State Gave Tribes Exclusive Online Sports Betting Rights
Mills has done some things for the tribes. She signed the 2022 bill giving them exclusive rights to a potentially lucrative online sports betting market.
In early May, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaq, and the Penobscot Nation announced a partnership with Caesars Digital to operate online sports betting.
However, Maine’s state gambling commission has been struggling with the rules for sports betting. Officials are still aiming for a November launch. However, industry analysts say it could be many months or even years before online sports betting in Maine is up and running.
In the case of Collings’ most recent bill, Maine would have had to negotiate casino licenses with federally recognized locally-based tribes for casinos on tribal land.
Bill 1944 would have also allowed negotiations with federally recognized, Maine-based tribes for casinos on non-tribal land. For the latter, only Penobscot and Oxford counties, where Maine’s existing casinos operate, were out of bounds.
While one is a slow step forward, the other is a pause. Neither equals sovereignty.
At an event held by the Wabanki Alliance at the start of Maine’s current legislative session, tribal chiefs made it clear sovereignty alone was their top legislative priority.
Without it, tribes in Maine are “stuck in 1980 policy,” said Penobscot Nation chief Kirk Francis.
All we want is for state government to break decisively from the past and join the era of self-determination.
Sovereignty, Not Gambling, is Wabanaki Nation Goal
Francis’ reference to ‘1980 policy’ refers to the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 (MICSA).
Under the law, Maine treats tribal reservations like municipalities, so they are subject to state law.
The act also stipulated that after 1980, federal Indian laws would no longer apply to Maine’s tribes unless explicitly named.
Since then, federal laws left Maine’s federally recognized tribes behind, as others were handed sovereign rights throughout the US. For example, the federal Indian Gaming Regulation Act (IGRA), which established tribal gaming rights, became law in 1988. The text, however, did not single Maine out.
The same is true for more than 150 other federal laws.
A recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School showed MICSA severely impacted economic growth in Wabanaki Nations. It also found adverse effects in surrounding (non-tribal) rural areas.
Because of this disparity, Maine’s tribes have campaigned for years to restore their federal rights. To finally gain equal footing with tribes in other states.
In a joint statement issued after Maine’s last tribal sovereignty bill died, tribal leaders committed to pressing for full sovereignty.
The evidence is clear that when tribal communities prosper, so do the surrounding communities. Wabanaki sovereignty is good for all of Maine. Everyone should support it, but we need to educate more people, including local municipalities and the forest products industry, who continue to misunderstand how tribal sovereignty can be the rising tide that lifts the economies and overall socioeconomic wellbeing of our neighbors in rural Maine.
Since then, and for the first time since 2002, Wabanki chiefs spoke to Maine legislators with a State of the Tribes address that renewed their sovereignty call.
The gambling expansion effort in Maine may be over for 2023, but the fight for indigenous rights will continue on that front and others.