Published: April 18, 2022

Behind the scenes of the Maine Legislature’s fight over tribal rights and sports betting

AUGUSTA, Maine — An abrupt split between two lawmakers looking to upend a contentious proposal to give Maine tribes control of mobile sports betting embodies tricky negotiations over tribal issues in the Legislature’s last days in the State House.

Three bills looking to overhaul the state-tribal relationship were paused on Monday during sensitive talks on how to proceed. Sports betting is subject to the most behind-the-scenes wrangling with gaming interests lobbying hard to win a bigger share of the business.

It is not unusual for last-minute deals to dominate the end of the legislative session. But snarls around the complex and emotional issue of tribal rights have marked the short legislative session ahead of the 2022 state election. The sports betting bill is likely the best bet for tribes after a more wide-ranging sovereignty bill was tabled on Monday. It may die there.

Under a proposal from Gov. Janet Mills and tribes, the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes would have exclusive access to mobile betting, which is estimated by the state to amount to 85 percent of a new betting market. The smaller in-person part would be controlled by casinos and off-track betting parlors.

Until Monday, Sens. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, and Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, planned to alter Mills’ compromise to give casinos a bigger stake in the market. Baldacci is otherwise supportive of tribal rights, but is an ally of Hollywood Casino Hotel and Raceway in Bangor. Farrin helped negotiate a different sports betting bill approved initially by the Legislature last year.

But their effort looks to be scuttled after Baldacci submitted another amendment that would move Hollywood Casino’s in-person sports betting license under the deal to the casino itself and not its seasonal raceway at nearby Bass Park. In response, Farrin planned yet another version cutting sports betting out of the Mills-tribal altogether.

Baldacci declined to comment on his amendment. But Farrin was candid about his reasoning for his proposal, saying the policy approach on sports betting is frustrating. His version would retain non-gaming concessions to tribes in Mills’ bill, including tax relief and a consultation process with tribes on state policies that would affect them.

“We’re trading licenses here,” Farrin said.

Monday’s events also teased a potential shift in tribal priorities. Advocates appear to be shifting their attention to the less far-reaching bills. The Wabanaki Alliance, a coalition including tribal chiefs, urged supporters on Twitter to speak up about the sports betting bill and another bill to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point more control over their drinking water supply.

The more sweeping sovereignty bill opposed by Mills was not included in that alert. The governor also appeared to be driving changes to the Passamaquoddy measure, which was recalled from her desk by lawmakers on Monday and awaits an amendment.

The water bill is the only piece of legislation that had enough support in initial votes to survive a Mills veto, while other efforts have largely fallen across party lines. Tribal leaders have shown their preference for bigger changes to tribal sovereignty. If the sweeping bill does not get off the appropriations table, it will die when lawmakers adjourn as soon as Wednesday.

That makes the situation more delicate for all parties. The governor’s office did not return a Monday request for comment. Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation said he felt there was good support behind the sports betting bill but declined to comment on the planned amendments, saying he was not familiar with their provisions.

“We haven’t agreed to any of this,” he said.

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