Mixed martial arts fighting gets panel’s OK

Posted March 27, 2009, at 10:45 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislation allowing professional mixed martial arts fighting in Maine received the unanimous support of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, but with some significant changes.

“We are placing this in the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation and requiring they promulgate the rules regulating this sport,” said Rep. Ann Haskell, D-Portland, co-chairman of the panel. “We are removing language on no-holds barred and combat fighting.”

Panel members said they were impressed with the testimony of Marcus Davis of Bangor, a mixed martial arts fighter with a national ranking. He urged the panel to adopt state regulations and licensing by using the standardized rules of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He described that organization as the “big league” of the sport that has worked out a lot of the rules and regulations needed to oversee the matches.

“This will be good for Maine,” Davis told the panel at the public hearing.

But the committee struggled with whether they should even consider the measure because the bill, as drafted, placed the responsibility for oversight with the Department of Public Safety, and no one thought that was appropriate.

“That is a problem I have had since this first came to us,” said Rep. Stephen Hanley, D-Gardiner. “I don’t see how this really has anything to do with public safety.”

Rep. Chris Greely, R-Levant, a strong supporter of the bill, agreed with Hanley, but urged the panel vote for the measure even though they were unsure whether the bill should be in their committee.

“I have never been sure why a bill went to one committee or another,” he said. “There does not seem to be a real rhyme or reason.”

The sponsor of the measure was blunt in his assessment. Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, said his bill would be dead if it were referred to the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee. That panel has jurisdiction over the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

“I think by sending it to the BRED committee, you are sending it to the graveyard,” he said. “My biggest fear is that if you send it to BRED, and nothing is done, you are doing a disservice to Maine.”

Panel members also discussed concerns raised at the public hearing about the need for clear definitions and adequate oversight. The committee believes those issues can be solved by rule making, and do not need to be in statute.

Complicating the issue is a second bill, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, that also would allow mixed martial arts matches. It would regulate them within the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

His bill would require that the commissioner of the department select members from the mixed martial arts community to serve on an advisory council to help develop the regulations. It has been referred to the BRED committee but no hearing has been scheduled.

At the work session before the Criminal Justice Committee, and during the public hearing, supporters argued that allowing the fights would have a positive economic benefit on the state. For example, Public Utilities Commissioner Jack Cashman, a former state Commissioner of Economic Development, testified for the measure as did several other speakers.

“We are looking at anything that will help things economically here in this state,” Greely said. “We have one of the best opportunities for generating income in this state with legalizing this mixed martial arts.”

He argued just one of the fights outlined by Davis at the public hearing would generate a significant amount of jobs and economic activity in the state. Davis told the public hearing that he is certain a major fight would be scheduled in the state were professional matches allowed.

But, even though the Criminal Justice Committee has endorsed the measure, its future is far from certain. It was opposed by the Baldacci administration and criticized in harsh terms.

“The legislation would have the state of Maine officially sanctioning events that are bound to be bloody and brutal and potentially deadly to the persons involved in the fighting,” said Deputy Chief of the Maine State Police Bob Williams. He testified on behalf of the Department of Public Safety. “The department strongly believes that the state of Maine ought to stay clear of endorsing, through its laws, such vicious events.”

The Petersen bill has just been printed so the Tuttle bill could be on the floor for debate before the other measure has its hearing. There could also be a jurisdictional squabble between the panels over the bills.

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