Written by Doug Rooks
from Times Record
When John Baldacci was inaugurated as governor in January 2003, he was honored with a smoke ceremony performed by members of the Penobscot Tribe.
It was a moving moment, promising a turn in the often bitter relations between state government and the Indian tribes that go back well before Maine became a state.
That turned out to be the high point, however. Decades of hostility and indifference have, after a tumultuous five years, led to still more conflict — and now — an impasse.
Even before the inauguration, there were signs of trouble. In the 2002 governor's race, Baldacci joined every other candidate, including several who later dropped out, in opposing a referendum for a Penobscot-Passamaquoddy casino in Sanford. Along with the federally recognized Micmacs and Maliseets, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddy make up the tribes known as the Wabanaki.
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The tribes had reason to wonder about Baldacci's stand, since, as a state senator, he had voted for an unsuccessful casino plan in Calais. But if he didn't have strong anti-gambling views before the 2002 race, he acquired them, and they have hardened since then.
The landslide defeat of the casino plan in November 2003 was a stunning setback for the tribes, and Baldacci's stance on gambling since then has been a regular irritant. Approval of a "racino" gambling parlor in Bangor at the same time the Sanford casino went down — most believe it snuck under the radar — has only raised the level of misery. Almost half of Baldacci's vetoes as governor have been against various bills to expand the tribes' gambling operations.
Most recently, he axed a measure to compensate the Penobscots for a loss of business at their Indian Island bingo hall to the Hollywood Slots operation in Bangor, run by a national gaming firm with scant relation to the original goal of helping harness racing.
Gambling tends to dominate coverage of Indian issues, and that's understandable, but unfortunate. The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act led to Indian casinos nationwide, but not in Maine, because federal courts ruled that the Land Claims Act superseded IGRA.
Maine Indians have been blocked at every turn — by the Legislature, the governor and the voters, in a referendum last fall. Still, on other issues the administration has been much more receptive. Baldacci supported legislation to allow the Penobscots to add reservation land for housing. Key legislators killed it, while suggesting, absent any evidence, that the land would somehow be used for gambling.
Baldacci also helped repair the non-functioning Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and provide enough funding to again hire an executive director. The commission, charged with resolving disputes and proposing legal changes, is funded jointly by the state and the tribes.
This year was supposed to see substantive revisions based on a study commission report, but the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight, refused to approve several unanimous commission recommendations. The tribes then pinned their hopes on a proposed Freedom of Access law exemption that, they believe, would implicitly recognize their "sovereignty," their distinction from other forms of government. Lawmakers killed that, too.
The final insult came when the Judiciary Committee turned a proposed $2,500 trim to the MITSC budget into a $38,000 de-funding. It's unclear who decided to remove all the money Baldacci had added earlier, but most attention focused on Senate Chairman Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who's much less sympathetic to the tribes than House Chairwoman Deborah Simpson, D-Auburn.
Whoever is responsible, the budget cuts went through, the tribes withheld their matching contribution and the commission will run out of money some time in November.
While the governor's office is searching for funding, the tribes contend that the state budget is the only appropriate source. Meanwhile, the National Conference of American Indians has canceled a planned meeting here out of solidarity with the Maine tribes.
None of this makes much sense. Just as Canadians resign themselves to being overshadowed by their more powerful southern neighbor, the tribes will never be able to achieve equal bargaining power with the state. As Paul Bisulca, MITSC chairman, put it, "the preponderance of authority is with the state, and with authority comes responsibility."
The tribes' unique status doesn't mean they can be ignored, or treated as second-class citizens, as they have been on a host of issues. The Wabanaki should be afforded access to housing, to schools, including higher education, and to revenue on an equivalent basis, while recognizing that they are not the same as Maine's municipal governments.
There should, in short, be fair and active bargaining on both sides, with agreements both will honor for the long term. There's no time like the present to get started.
Douglas Rooks returns to the Maine political commentary arena with Re: Maine, a weekly column on state government and related issues. Re: Maine will be published Thursdays in The Times Record. To contact Douglas Rooks, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC)
13 Commissary Point Road, Trescott Township, ME 04652
Paul Thibeault, Managing Director: 207-271-7762