Three-way deal could put expanded gambling options to vote

Posted March 17, 2010, at 9:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The proponents of an Oxford County resort casino have reached a tentative deal with the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Hollywood Slots for a November ballot question seeking to expand gambling in western, eastern and central Maine.

The agreement emerged Wednesday roughly a week after Passamaquoddy leaders, who have been battling to gain gambling rights on tribal land for nearly 20 years, questioned the fairness of potentially allowing slots and table games in Oxford County.

Representatives of Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood Slots in Bangor, had also urged lawmakers to reject Black Bear Entertainment’s Oxford proposal.

But after a week of private negotiations, Black Bear officials have agreed to a new, three-pronged ballot measure that would appear on the November ballot alongside the company’s original proposal. A legislative committee could vote today whether to endorse the plan.

If approved by the full Legislature, the new ballot question would seek voter approval for a resort casino in Oxford, slots and table games in Washington County and the addition of table games in Bangor.

“We have to be true to Oxford County and we have to be true to the people who signed the petitions,” said Black Bear spokesman Peter Martin, whose company gathered more than 100,000 signatures to get the original Oxford proposal on the ballot. “But in the end we have to win. We do believe there is merit in bringing in Penn National and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.”

The tentative deal remains fragile, however, and will have to survive the turbulent political process before voters could have their say on the matter.

Martin warned that Black Bear would back out of the three-party agreement — and instead push ahead with its campaign for a solitary resort casino — if the Legislature changed any aspects of the proposal affecting Oxford County.

Several members of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which was briefed on the agreement Wednesday, also expressed concerns about approving such a complicated “competing ballot measure” so late in the legislative session without a public hearing.

“I don’t think we have the time, or I haven’t been convinced, that we can put together a well-thought-out competing measure of this scope,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond.

But other committee members said there will be plenty of time for public debate if lawmakers approve a competing measure.

“There is going to be a public hearing and it is going to last from when we adjourn until November,” said Rep. Stacey Allen Fitts, R-Pittsfield. “People will be able to endorse it or not endorse it at the ballot box, which is the beauty of this.”

According to the outline provided Wednesday, the alternative ballot question would seek voter authorization for:

• A four-season resort in Oxford featuring slot machines and table games such as poker and blackjack plus a hotel, convention center and restaurant.

• Up to 500 slot machines and 20 table games at a Washington County casino-racetrack, or racino, built within 30 miles of the two Passamaquoddy reservations.

• The addition of table games at Hollywood Slots on Main Street in Bangor.

The majority of the tax revenues generated from the Oxford casino would go to public education in the state.

The ballot measure would not change the formula under which tax revenues from Hollywood Slots are divvied up, which Cheryl Timberlake, representing Penn National, said was key to the proposed agreement winning the company’s endorsement.

Gov. Bill Nicholas of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Indian Township reservation said he was skeptical after last week’s hearing that the parties could hammer out a compromise.

But Nicholas said the draft agreement, if approved by the Legislature, then the voters, would benefit all three parties.

The Passamaquoddy chief also forecast the collaborative approach stands a better chance of overcoming the urban-rural divide and regional tensions that have scuttled other gambling referendums, including a 2008 attempt at an Oxford casino.

“It’s something that is going to be good for Southern Maine, Central Maine and Northern Maine,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas, Martin and Timberlake each asked the committee for a signal that a strong majority of members supported the idea before taking the next costly step of drawing up the legal documents. But after a party caucus, committee members early Wednesday evening tabled the issue until 1 p.m. today.

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