Gaming pact lacks committee support

Posted March 18, 2010, at 8:43 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A last-minute compromise negotiated by the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Hollywood Slots and the backers of an Oxford County casino failed to earn the endorsement of a legislative committee on Thursday.

But supporters of the proposed ballot question said they hope to pick up additional support for the three-pronged gambling initiative in the full Legislature.

“It’s not something that we are going to walk away from at this point,” said Gov. Bill Nicholas with the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Indian Township reservation.

Members of the Legal and Veterans’ Affairs Committee voted 9-4 Thursday afternoon to let the voters decide this fall whether to approve a citizen initiative proposing a resort casino in Oxford County.

In the process, the majority of committee members recommended that the Legislature reject a larger, alternative ballot question that had the backing of the Oxford casino developers as well as the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Hollywood Slots.

The proposed “competing measure” had three components: the resort casino in Oxford already proposed by Black Bear Entertainment; a combination casino-racetrack, or racino, on Passamaquoddy land in Washington County; and the addition of table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

But with the clock ticking on the 2010 legislative session, lawmakers said there was insufficient time to thoroughly review the details of the complex competing measure that had been presented to the committee just a day earlier.

“We just didn’t get there,” said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, the committee co-chair. “Too late and too little time.”

“I’m supportive of the casino in Oxford County, and I’m supportive of a casino for the Passamaquoddy Tribe,” said the other co-chair, Rep. Pamela Jabar Trinward, D-Waterville. “For me really it’s a question of being able to produce thoughtful, concise and accurate legislation that goes out with our name on it.”

But the three-party compromise is not dead yet.

Rep. Stacey Allen Fitts, R-Pittsfield, said he plans to hammer out the details of the competing measure in time to present it on the House floor as a minority report.

Fitts, who was among the four committee members to support the competing measure, said he believes people are getting tired of voting every few years on individual gambling initiatives that benefit one region of the state.

Supporters of the compromise said the plan would help bring jobs and economic development to Oxford and Washington counties, where unemployment rates are consistently above the state average. It would also grant Hollywood Slots’ request to add poker and other table games as a way to draw additional players.

Fitts also expressed frustration that committee leaders and members felt rushed to complete their work on the bill Thursday when there are likely at least two weeks left in the legislative session.

“This would be a game-changer for some parts of the state, so why would we throw that away based on an artificial time frame?” Fitts said after the vote.

The three-party compromise remains a complicated and fragile agreement, however.

Black Bear Entertainment has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars gathering the required petition signatures for a ballot question, drafting the measure and acquiring land in Oxford County.

Black Bear officials were reluctant to join forces with the Passamaquoddy Tribe as recently as last week but changed their tune after lengthy private discussions.

Ultimately, company officials determined that collaborating with the Passamaquoddys and Hollywood Slots could help them gain statewide support at the ballot box in November. Voters in Penobscot and Washington counties voted heavily against a 2008 referendum for an Oxford County casino.

Additionally, being on the same side as Penn National Gaming — the owner Hollywood Slots — was preferable to fighting the large, national gaming corporation during the campaign.

But Black Bear spokesman Peter Martin warned again Thursday that they likely would withdraw from the three-party agreement if the Legislature made changes that could hurt the company’s bottom line. One potential deal-breaker is any attempt to change the state law prohibiting gambling facilities within 100 miles of each other.

“If we go out alone [on the ballot], that’s how we started to begin with,” Martin said. “We are prepared to do that as well.”

Nicholas, the Passamaquoddy chief, acknowledged he was disappointed that the committee did not endorse the competing measure given that the committee had encouraged the three parties to work together on a compromise.

“I think there is enough time for them to draft something that would benefit southern Maine, central Maine and us in Washington County,” Nicholas said.

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