Adopting guidelines for casino gambling in Maine, allowing communities to benefit from local renewable energy projects, expanding the elver fishery and making it a crime to falsely affiliate oneself with a federally recognized tribe are among the topics of bills that area legislators have submitted that will be taken up during the upcoming session of the Maine Legislature.
The session, which begins in January, is intended for budgetary matters, emergency legislation, bills submitted by the governor and carryover bills, of which there are 134. On October 31, the Legislative Council acted on 284 new bill requests, accepting 117 and tabling nine. The council will consider appeals on bills it did not accept on November 17.
A bill to improve the state's laws on gaming, which was submitted by Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry and was carried over from the last session, could be used to provide a means for the legislature to place rational guidelines on gambling in the state, Raye says. He notes that those guidelines could include a system for determining locations, controls on gambling and a uniform system for distributing revenues. Casino proposals have "lurched from referendum to referendum," Raye says, with the legislature having refused "to take the bull by the horns" and resolve the questions on gambling. "Maine is wide open. We need to take a look at gaming in states around the country. How are they governed? What's in place in terms of safeguards and controls? It has to be done well," he says. While casinos are numerous in other places, "there's been no real effort in the legislature to look at other states."
Increasing energy options
Among the bills being sponsored by Raye that were accepted by the council is "An Act To Increase Energy Options," which would allow communities not served by consumer-owned utilities the opportunity to manage their own standard-offer electricity supplies in the same manner permitted for consumer-owned utilities. Raye says a municipality could negotiate a contract with the developer of a renewable energy project for lower electricity rates, jobs or tax revenue. The bill would give a community "the ability, if it wishes to see a project, to help make it happen and to benefit from it." He says the measure would help encourage renewable energy projects and reduce the state's dependence on foreign oil.
Addressing Wesget Sipu claims
The council accepted Passamaquoddy Rep. Madonna Soctomah's bill that would impose a penalty for making false claims regarding affiliation with a federally recognized tribe. She introduced the legislation because of three bills that were submitted during the last session to extend certain rights of members of the four federally recognized tribes to members of the Wesget Sipu-Fish River Tribe in Aroostook County, which is not federally recognized. The bills would have given the Wesget-Sipu rights to free, lifetime hunting, trapping and fishing licenses, tuition waivers at the University of Maine System, Maine Maritime Academy and the Maine Community College System, and 25 moose hunting permits. All of the bills were rejected in legislative committee. Because the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had been issuing, since 2002, the free lifetime licenses to members of the Wesget Sipu, Soctomah submitted a bill that was adopted during the last session to ensure that the free licenses are only available to certified members of the four federally recognized tribes and not to the Wesget Sipu.
Rep. Soctomah says that while the Wesget Sipu are an incorporated body in the state "they are not in a position to apply for federal recognition," since they don't have any land base. "It's like identity theft," she says of the efforts by the Wesget Sipu. "They're trying to pass themselves off as members of the federally recognized tribes." She notes that groups that hold powwows in southern Maine or near Old Town that are not members of the four tribes also could be charged under her bill "if they masquerade that they are a federally recognized tribe."
"We have a treaty and the settlement act that put us in a different political status" from other ethnic groups in the state, she points out. "We gave up land under the settlement," she says, noting that the federal and state governments agreed to the settlement act in 1980 "because we were recognized as owners of the land."
If her bill is enacted, the penalty would be determined by the Attorney General's Office.
One district for tribes
Rep. Soctomah is appealing the council's denial of her request for another bill that would require that federally recognized tribes in Maine be included in a single legislative district. She says that proposal, if it's accepted for consideration, "will be a battle," since the tribes are not connected geographically. "But we're a political entity. They can't deny that," she says, adding that the tribes shouldn't be separated in different districts, since it dilutes their political power. "We need to be politically effective, and we're not, because we're not together. We have common issues that are not common to the rest of the state."
Soctomah says "the crux of this legislation" is to help with economic development, and the tribes would have more political clout in the legislature. She notes that since legislative districts must have approximately 8,500 people, some non-tribal members might need to be included in the district. Also, three tribes -- the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscots and, beginning in January, the Houlton Band of Maliseets C would continue to have their non-voting representatives in the legislature.
Soctomah says all four tribes are supportive of the legislation. If the bill is not enacted, Soctomah says the tribes may have to take the matter to court.
Rep. Dianne Tilton of Harrington has submitted a bill, "An Act To Sustain the Elver Fishery," that would help ensure that enough elvers are caught so that elver buyers will continue coming to Maine to provide a market. There is presently a moratorium on new licenses, and the bill would increase the number of licenses available by approximately 100; move the start of the season to a later date, so that younger eels are not being caught; allow fishermen to fish seven days a week, to prevent theft of elvers when nets are not being tended; and provide for an increase in the amount of gear that can be used by each fisherman.
Raye had the council table a request he submitted that would clarify that an alternative organizational structure would follow the same procedure as a regional school unit for committing taxes in the absence of approval of the school budget. The issue had arisen after the Town of Alexander had begun the school year without having approved a school budget. Raye says the matter may be able to be wrapped into another bill, such as one submitted by Rep. David Burns of Whiting, "An Act To Modify the Alternative Organizational Structure Budget Approval Process." That bill, which was accepted by the council, would allow towns that are part of an AOS the choice to continue with the budget process under current state law or to apportion the costs of system administration and special education administration among the school administrative units in proportion to the services performed.
Two bill requests submitted by Rep. Joyce Maker of Calais were denied by the council. One, which would increase the criminal penalties for failure to report the death or disappearance of a child, is covered by another bill sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Olsen that was accepted. While Maker's request to create a task force on the prevention of sexual abuse of children also was not accepted, the council did accept a bill request from Senator Bill Diamond, "An Act To Rescue Children Who Are Being Sexually Abused and To Make Improvements to the Sex Offender Registry and the Computer Crimes Unit" and a request by Senator Barry Hobbins, "An Act To Prohibit Verbal Sexual Solicitation of a Minor."
Raye has submitted two bills concerning funding for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. One would make IF&W projects, such as deer yards, eligible to receive tax-increment financing (TIF) funds, and the second would direct the legislature's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee to develop funding proposals for the department, since the department has been struggling for funds.
Soctomah is appealing for acceptance by the council two other bill requests. One would return to the Passamaquoddy Tribe the tax on sales occurring on land held in trust by the tribe, and the other would clarify the laws governing school enrollment for children who are placed in foster homes by Indian child welfare agencies.