After the casino referendum went down to defeat last week, Dennis Bailey of the anti-casino group CasinosNO! said the casino question had been asked and answered. “I really think Maine people made up their minds about casinos five years ago and Las Vegas just didn’t get the memo,” he said.
It’s a safe bet that Mr. Bailey is wrong.
Despite three rejections at the polls, another casino proposal is likely in Maine’s future. And if that one doesn’t win voter support, a subsequent proposal may. Each of the three proposals to date — the Sanford casino defeated in 2003, the Calais casino shot down at the polls last year, and the Oxford casino that failed Nov. 4 — brought with them unique potential benefits and worries. And each was proposed in very different geographic settings, in very different economic climates.
It’s very likely that another proposal will come, so Maine should do its best to prepare to avoid the terrible legislation that accompanied the Oxford referendum.
The Legislature can take some of the guesswork out of the casino question by creating a set of standards that any proposal must meet. When the next would-be casino developers pitch their plan, it would have to meet these standards. A referendum vote would then be required, and would only be scheduled if the Legislature agrees that the proposal matches the law.
That law should dictate what games or machines may be used, and how many. It could direct a developer to build in a certain percentage of square-footage devoted to nongambling activities, such as conference rooms and spas. The law also should designate the percentage of gambling revenues that is diverted to worthy public causes, and should name those beneficiaries.
The casino law also should require the developers to lay their cards on the table — who they are and how they will finance the facility.
Crafting such a casino boiler-plate bill will be like walking a political tightrope. Legislators will be reluctant to support such a law for fear of looking as if they are endorsing the casino concept, or, for that matter, opposing it. But they could effectively argue that having such a law protects Maine from the worst of casinos, while also ensuring the best possible casino is built within a predetermined set of standards.
And voters will always, under such a process, have the final say.
The BDN continues to have serious reservations about the wisdom of allowing more gambling facilities to be built in our state. But pre-emptively setting a high bar for a casino project keeps the cards — or at least many of them — in the state’s hands.