Maine casino plan questioned

Posted Sept. 18, 2008, at 10:18 a.m.

Backers of an Oxford County casino concede there are flaws in their Nov. 4 ballot proposal that would have to be remedied by the Maine Legislature.

Dean Harrold from Olympia Gaming, who’s running the pro-casino campaign, said he disagrees with a provision to lower the minimum age for gambling from 21 to 18. He’s also against a provision to let the casino president have a seat on all of the boards and agencies that would benefit from casino revenues.

While Harrold promised to work with the Maine Legislature to change those provisions, casino opponents plan to use those provisions in their campaign to reject the project.

“Voters should not vote for something when we don’t know what it will look like after it goes through the Legislature,” said Dennis Bailey from Casino No!

Pat LaMarche, spokeswoman for the pro-casino group, said voters shouldn’t let a $100 million economic investment fade away because of concerns about operational details.

Once it’s approved, “it goes to the Legislature, where cool heads prevail and correct decisions are made for what kind of law it should be,” LaMarche said.

The flawed wording of the law behind the ballot question is reminiscent of problems with a bill allowing a racetrack casino that voters approved in 2003.

Back then, lawmakers made numerous tweaks to the law including adjusting the amount of revenue Penn National Gaming was allowed to keep and the amount that goes to state coffers. The Legislature also had to set up a gambling board to regulate slot machines.

State Rep. Gary Moore of Standish was the committee’s ranking Republican when the panel rewrote the 2003 law passed by voters that allowed slot machines at harness racing tracks. It took the committee two years to address the flaws in that bill, he said.

“You have to be careful about crafting these things,” he said. “You should not put out a (referendum) package that you yourself are admitting needs to be fixed.”

As in 2003, the Oxford Casino referendum question lacks a mechanism for providing state oversight, said Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, the committee’s co-chair.

And the stipulation about how casino revenue is spent and the requirement that the head of the casino operation also serve on all the boards are problematic, as well, she said.

“The whole thing was weird,” she said.

Details of the referendum were the personal desires of Seth Carey, a Rumford lawyer who wrote the legislation and gathered the signatures to force a referendum.

Carey, who ran into trouble with the Maine Bar Association over ethics complaints, has sold to Olympia Gaming his controlling interest in Evergreen Mountain Enterprises LLC, the company the ballot question stipulates would own the casino.

Harrold, vice chairman of Las Vegas-based Olympia Gaming, part of development company Olympia Group, said the referendum may not be perfect but he said it advances the goal of economic development. He made a personal vow to work with lawmakers to fix the problems.

If voters give their approval, Olympia Gaming plans to build a $100 million casino and four-season resort in Oxford County that would create 800 jobs.

Harrold acknowledged he faces an uphill battle in the referendum campaign, but he said it’s a battle worth fighting.

“It’s a sprint to the finish,” he said. “I don’t care what the odds are. The game has to be played, and we are going to play it.”

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