Lawmakers study new casino process

Posted Aug. 25, 2009, at 8:14 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the closing days of the session last spring, lawmakers directed the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee to draft legislation that would establish a new process for locating and regulating any new gambling facilities.

Among other things, the panel is looking at how the state can squeeze more revenue out of any new gambling facility — possibly by running one itself.

The sweeping measure directs the committee to “develop a comprehensive policy regarding slot machine and casino-style gambling in the State, including, but not limited to, state-operated gambling facilities, additional slot machine facilities at commercial tracks and a competitive bidding process allowing private entities to contract with the State to conduct gambling.”

Last week the panel discussed that charge and how to craft legislation with little time to meet between now and the January session. Because of legislative budget constraints, they are currently allowed to meet just once on the issue.

“This is a major policy bill and it will take some time to get ready, but we can do it,” Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, said. “We will spend an entire day working on it and finalize something in January. If we need to meet again during the interim, we will ask to meet.”

She is co-chair of the legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee that will meet in October for a day to discuss the resolve. Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said in an interview that the issues are far too complex to be handled in the time allowed by legislative leaders. She is the only GOP senator on the panel.

“I don’t see how we can do this is just one day.” she said, “This really is a major expansion of gambling and this would go before a short session of the Legislature.”

Plowman said the committee needs several days to sort out the issues and develop the oversight structure. She was a member of the Legislature when it created the Gambling Control Board in the wake of voters approving a racino at referendum in 2004.

“That took a long time to put together,” she said. “It was not easy.”

Rep. Pamela Trinward, D-Waterville, the House co-chair of the committee, agreed the panel has a big job ahead, but said in an interview that the goal is to come up with a system that would provide more revenue for the state.

Last year Hollywood Slots paid just over $5 million into the state treasury while the Lottery Commission games generated more than $50 million.

“If there are any future casinos or racinos in the state of Maine, we would like to see the taxpayers of the state of Maine benefit more directly,” Trinward said.

She agreed with Plowman that the committee has a lot of work to do to craft the legislation, but said the Legislature passed the resolve directing the committee to undertake the study and the drafting of legislation and that Gov. John Baldacci signed the measure.

“I think we can get the job done and if we need more time, we can ask [legislative] leadership for it,” she said.

The panel will also have the assistance of state agencies. The Department of Public Safety has already held meetings to gather information on how oversight agencies work in other states. The committee oversees the Lottery Commission and will ask it for assistance.

The measure was originally sponsored by Rep. Thom Watson, D-Bath. His measure was aimed at creating a siting process that would benefit state taxpayers rather than groups that seek to develop a casino for their own benefit.

“I am not proposing a casino, I am proposing we look at this a different way,” he said last spring when introducing the measure. “If you look back, what we have had is developers coming in, making the proposals and dictating the terms of the contract when they initiate legislation. That is not best for the taxpayers.”

Gov. John Baldacci said that while he signed the resolve ordering the study, his bottom line has not changed on gambling.

“Any expansion must be approved by the people,” he said. “Any proposal must go out to referendum.”

Dennis Bailey of Casinos No! said the whole study process is a “waste of time.” He said every referendum that has been initiated has sought to change state law and that won’t change with a new process for siting and regulating casinos.

“Any ‘siting bill’ could also be amended or repealed by a future casino referendum,” he said in an e-mail. “We already have a casino siting policy, voted on repeatedly by Maine people: NO.”

Any legislation the panel proposes will have a public hearing during the January session before action by the full Legislature.

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