AUGUSTA, Maine — Oversight of all gambling activities would be consolidated under a proposal discussed by members of the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee as lawmakers heard testimony on the governor’s proposed budget Friday.
Gov. John Baldacci says that’s a good idea.
“We are not wedded to one way or another,” he said in an interview. “We want to make things more efficient with longer-term sustainability, and if this is one way to do it, we should look at it.”
Baldacci said he proposed a similar approach earlier in his tenure that got little support, but he acknowledged that “times change” and he is pleased lawmakers are exploring another consolidation effort.
“We definitely need to look at this,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “We hope the legal affairs committee takes the time to delve into this and come up with a proposal.”
Diamond said the current budget proposal would turn over the oversight of the Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway in Bangor to the state police division that already oversees nonprofit gambling such as bingo and beano. That’s troubling, he said, given all the other demands on the state police.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the other Appropriations Committee co-chair, agreed.
Not mentioned during the budget hearings — but being discussed among lawmakers — is the citizen-initiated legislation allowing a casino in Oxford County, she said.
“Is this the time to be reducing oversight, or should we be increasing oversight?” she asked. “This is something the committee of jurisdiction should be looking at, and we are glad they are.”
The current budget proposal would terminate the position of executive director of the Gambling Control Board, held by former Bangor Police Department Deputy Chief Robert Welch, and that move concerned several lawmakers.
Rep. Pam Trinward, D-Waterville, the co-chair of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, said the language in the budget also strips the Gambling Control Board of its authority.
“This seems to be a huge shift in policy, a huge change,” she said. “This has gone way over budgetary [matters] and into policy.”
She said her committee also is considering legislation that could be used to merge oversight of all gambling activities under a single state board.
In addition to the slots oversight by the Gambling Control Board, state police oversight of nonprofit gaming, and State Lottery Commission regulation of lottery games, there is a separate commission that oversees off-track betting facilities and both commercial and nonprofit harness racing.
“We are looking at creating one board to oversee all gaming,” said Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. “I think there is a realization, on our committee, that gambling is gambling whether it is a lottery ticket or any other gaming.”
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, opposes the elimination of the gambling board’s executive director. She said there needs to be adequate oversight of gambling, but she opposes merging all gambling oversight into one board or commission.
“These various entities are really in competition with each other,” she said. “The lottery is competing with Hollywood Slots and with pari-mutuel racing and beano and bingo.”
Plowman said she would oppose a single agency that is charged with both regulation and enforcement. She said it is bad public policy to have a board act as both judge and jury.
But Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, the GOP lead on the panel, said a single-agency proposal might pass if it does save money.
“This budget is all about money,” he said. “If it can be shown that having one board will save some money, it will pass.”
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he is opposed to any change that decreases the oversight of gambling in the state, particularly at the Hollywood Slots facility.
“We should not be decreasing the amount of investigation or control or oversight over the gambling in Bangor, we should be increasing it,” he said.
Martin urged the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee to go further than a consolidation proposal and look at the revenues generated by gambling and find revenues to pay for adequate oversight of all gambling and provide some additional money for the state budget hole.
“This might also offer the perfect opportunity for the committee to review the reallocation of those dollars as well as a potential increase in the percentage that should be collected by the state for the gambling that goes on at Bangor,” he said.