Saturday, March 8, 2014
BY ETHAN WILENSKY-LANFORD Staff Writer
The House has cleared the way for an alternate gambling proposal to appear on November's ballot, alongside the citizen's initiative for a casino in Oxford County.
Lawmakers voted 81-69 Wednesday to reject the majority committee report on the Oxford casino bill, L.D. 1808, which would have taken a single question to the voters.
Now the House will consider three competing measures that could each change the shape of gaming in Maine.
One measure under consideration, for example, would ask voters to authorize the casino in Oxford but also add table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor and a new Washington County casino to be run by the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
Another proposal would allow Hollywood Slots to add table games to its operation as a test case for the rest of the state, and give limited slots to two tribes.
And still a third option would empower the state to put out competitive bids for casinos, with preference for proposals from one of the four Native American tribes, at an existing commercial racetrack such as Scarborough Downs, or in an area with chronic high unemployment such as Washington or Oxford counties.
Unlike other states, Maine's Indian tribes must receive the support of voters or the Legislature to establish a casino -- a condition that stems from a landmark land claims settlement act in 1980.
The Passamaquoddy Tribe originally had asked the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee for the chance to ask voters to approve a casino in Calais.
"We've been at this for 20 years, and they keep telling us, 'Wait a year, wait a year,'" Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah said after Wednesday's vote. "It seems that Washington County is being forgotten, the tribes are being forgotten. This gives us an opportunity."
In 2007, the Legislature approved a casino with a racetrack in Washington County that Gov. John Baldacci blocked with a veto.
Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, 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; the owners of Hollywood Slots; and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
He spoke against the majority ought-not-to-pass report during a spirited floor debate Wednesday that would have allowed a simple yes-or-no vote only on the Oxford County initiative.
"I don't want us to get into a division pitting one region of the state against another," he said.
Rep. James Martin, D-Orono, also urged his colleagues to reject the majority report. He said he wants to allow Hollywood Slots to add table games, and give permission to both the Penobscot and Passamaquody tribes to run 50 slot machines.
His amendment would ask the Gaming Control Board to report back to the Legislature in a year or two to develop a comprehensive gambling policy for the state.
"We need to test the waters," he said. "I think it's time for us to step up and say, 'This is what our policy is going to be.'"
Several other representatives said any amendment would change the Oxford County citizens' initiative, which garnered support from more than 100,000 Maine residents.
"I don't believe that we should be putting forward a competing measure," said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, 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?"
Committee member Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, is planning to introduce an amendment for a competing measure that would empower the state to call for competitive bids to develop up to three new casinos.
Her amendment would also allow Hollywood Slots to pay $3 million to add table games -- $2 million less than it recently offered the state. But if it made this transition to a full casino, it would not be allowed to add the 500 more slot machines it otherwise could.
Revenue from the new casinos, Valentino said, would be distributed for property tax relief and education benefits throughout Maine, with veterans getting special property-tax relief.
"The money is going directly back to Maine residents," Valentino said.
She opposed the Oxford County initiative, she said, because the project was exclusive to one location, one entity and a defined group that would benefit from the proceeds.
"What we're saying is, if you're going to expand gambling," she said, "then let's do it a manner that benefits everyone."
Ethan Wilensky-Lanford --