June 10, 2011

Senate says yes to Biddeford ‘racino,’ no to Lewiston casino

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- The Maine Senate cast split votes on two gambling bills Thursday, approving one that would allow racinos in Biddeford and Washington County, while narrowly rejecting one that would allow a casino in Lewiston.

With vetoes expected from Gov. Paul LePage, who has said he wants voters to decide whether to expand gambling in the state, the citizens initiatives are likely to remain alive regardless of legislative action.

Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, spoke passionately in favor of L.D. 1203, which would allow operations with harness racetracks and slot machines in Biddeford and Calais.

In 1993, the Passamaquoddy tribe initiated the first vote on gambling in Maine, he said. Since then, a racino has opened in Bangor and a casino has been approved in Oxford County.

But Washington County, which has high rates of poverty and unemployment, has been left behind, he said.

"Imagine the indignity of being told by the people in this building that we don't have a right to determine our own economic future," he said.

Others said the Legislature always sends gambling issues to voters and should do the same this time.

"This is a matter of fairness," said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport. "It is not a settled issue by any stretch of the imagination."

Citizens initiatives, which begin with petition drives, can be passed into law by the Legislature. Any initiatives that are rejected by lawmakers must go on the statewide ballot. A governor's veto would also put an initiative on the ballot.

Maine voters have rejected gambling proposals four times and approved them twice.

Thursday's debate cut across party lines, with Democrats and Republicans voting on both sides.

Just as Republicans Rosen and Raye argued on opposite sides, Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, argued for the bill, while Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, spoke against it.

Biddeford Downs, a partnership between Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties Ltd., wants to build a racetrack with slot machines and a resort hotel in Biddeford.

The racino in Washington County would be operated by Maine's Passamaquoddy tribe.

The House approved the bill on Monday. Thursday's Senate vote was 21-12 in favor. The bill faces more House and Senate votes before it is sent to LePage.

The other citizen initiative that was debated Thursday, L.D. 985, would allow a casino to open in Lewiston.

Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC proposes to operate the casino in building No. 5 of the Bates Mill Complex in Lewiston.

After a short debate, the Senate voted 17-16 against the proposal.

After another Senate vote, the bill will be sent back to the House, which approved it earlier this week, 78-61.

Susan Cover -- 620-7015



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