April 2, 2010

Gaming supporters ante up

Lawmakers may hear three separate plans to expand casino gambling in Maine when they restart debate about the citizen-initiated Oxford County casino proposal today.

The House will weigh amendments to the legislation, L.D. 1808, that would ask voters to approve casinos and table games elsewhere in the state. If approved, they would appear alongside the Oxford Casino question as "competing measures" on November's ballot.

"It gets complicated trying to craft a workable competing measure this late in the session," said Majority Whip Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. "To put a competing measure on the ballot, we need to be darn sure that it's a better measure than the one supported by 105,000 Mainers."

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, has proposed a competing measure that Black Bear Entertainment, the developer behind the casino in Oxford County, supports.  (Editor's Note: This story was changed on Friday, April 2 to correct Rep. Fitts' party affiliation.)

It would ask voters to allow a casino in Calais, and table games to be added at Hollywood Slots in Bangor -- and prevent what Fitts and Berry agree is a risk of "regionalism" if the Oxford initiative goes to voters on its own.

"This is a way for everybody to feel like they've got something to vote for," said Fitts. "Pitting one business in one region of the state with another is not a good idea."

Rep. James Martin, D-Orono, had been shopping an amendment for a competing measure to only allow table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor so that casino could serve as a testing ground about what gambling regulations would be most appropriate for the state.

Late Thursday, however, he said he was unlikely to introduce it before the House, and was instead working with Fitts to improve his expansion proposal.

Other Democrats opposed to gambling, however, have other ideas.

Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, co-chairwoman of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, plans to offer a competing measure to require the state to seek bids for up to three new casinos, with preference for American Indians, at Scarborough Downs racetrack or in an area with chronic high unemployment.

Her measure would also allow Hollywood Slots to add table gaming for $3 million and earmark state revenue from new casinos for statewide education and property tax relief.

"I really don't want to see gambling. I don't think it's a good economic base for Maine," she said. "But if the people want gambling, I think they deserve the opportunity to vote on a good proposal."

Rep. Thom Watson, D-Bath, supports Valentino's amendment. He said it could split the pro-casino vote to force a runoff, or at least draw support away from the Oxford County initiative.

"It may be attractive to voters who would otherwise support casino gambling but may be concerned about it being under the monopolistic control of one company," he said. "One of these referendums is going to be approved, and, if it is, I'd rather it be under state control."

Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment, is very much opposed to the competitive bid process Valentino and Watson support.

"To insert an initiative like that really subverts the will of the people that signed our initiative," he said. "There's a real need in the Greater Oxford area for economic development and jobs."

Martin said the company was prepared to campaign for the casino in a simple yes or no vote, or as part of the three-way deal Fitts has proposed.

Dennis Bailey, executive director of the anti-casino CasinosNo! advocacy group, would prefer to see no competing measure.

"It's just too late in the session to be bringing up a major expansion of casinos," he said. "We should be looking at real long-term development, not an 11th-hour bet that we're going to regret when we wake up from this hangover."

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford -- 620-7016

ewlanford@mainetoday.com

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