April 1, 2010

House clears way for additional gambling proposals on ballot

The House has cleared the way for more gambling proposals to appear on November's ballot, alongside the citizen's initiative for a casino in Oxford County.

Wednesday morning, lawmakers voted 81 to 69 to reject the majority committee report on the Oxford casino bill, L.D. 1808, which recommended against its passage.

In doing so, the House opened the door to amendments to further change the shape of gaming in Maine. One now under consideration, for example, would not only ask voters to authorize the casino in Oxford, but an expansion of Hollywood Slots in Bangor to include table games and a full casino in Washington County to be run by the Passamaquoddy Tribe as well.

That question would appear on the ballot in addition to the citizen's initiative for the Oxford casino. There are several other competing measures being discussed by lawmakers, which will be heard when the House takes up the bill again on Thursday.

Tribal representatives were encouraged by the House's vote.

"We've been at this for 20 years, and they keep telling us 'Wait a year, wait a year,'" said Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah after the vote. "It seems that Washington County is being forgotten, the tribes are being forgotten. This gives us an opportunity."

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield and a member of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee that oversees gambling, has been active in brokering a compromise between Black Bear Entertainment, which is behind the Oxford proposal, and the owners of Hollywood Slots, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Fitts spoke against the majority ought not to pass report on Wednesday, during a spirited floor debate.

"I don't want us to get into a division pitting one region of the state against another," he told his fellow representatives.

Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said that voters she represents have consistently said that they want a casino in Washington County.

"I'm going to ask that you vote against this (majority report) and that we have a real competing measure," she said.

Rep. James Martin, D-Orono, urged his colleagues to reject the majority report, because he said that he wanted to discuss other options.

"The measure presented here today I do not believe presents the people of Maine with a real policy choice," he said. There were more options than simply one casino or three, he said.

Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston -- also a member of the Legal and Veterans Affairs committee -- said that there have been seven casino proposals in Maine's history. He urged his fellow representatives to support the majority report, so a broad study about the future of gambling might be undertaken.

"I've voted to send this directly to the voters," he said.

Several other representatives said that an amendment would change the citizens' initiative.

"I don't believe that we should be putting forward a competing measure," said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland and a member of the committee. "Are we going to tell the people of Maine that we don't support the right that they have to petition their government?"

Unlike in other states, Maine's Native American tribes must first receive popular support of voters to establish a casino. These terms stem from the landmark land claims settlement act in 1980.

Before then, the Penobscots had been operating slot machines for about five years, Penobscot Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell told the House.

"A lot of our community service programs that were paid for by revenue from that dissipated," he said. Since the early 1980s, the Penobscots have operated a bingo game, but has lost several million dollars in revenue since Hollywood Slots moved in, he said. The Passamaquoddy Tribe also has a license for high-stakes bingo, Soctomah said, but is not running a game because Hollywood Slots has siphoned gambling traffic from Washington County, he said.

Although the Passamaquoddy Tribe originally asked the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee for the chance to ask voters to approve a casino in Calais, the Penobscot Tribe could partner and share in the profits, Soctomah said.

"The tribes aren't looking for a hand-out. We're looking for a hand-up," Mitchell said.

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford - 620-7016


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