House seeks deal on statewide gambling

Posted March 31, 2010, at 10:19 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — AUGUSTA — A proposal to seek voter approval this November for casinos in Oxford and Washington counties and table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor survived its first critical vote in the Legislature on Wednesday.

But the fate of the latest effort to bring gambling to eastern Maine remains uncertain as lawmakers — some with different objectives — seek to hammer out a deal before the Legislature adjourns, potentially as early as next week.

After roughly an hour of debate, House lawmakers voted against placing a question on the November ballot dealing only with a resort casino proposed for Oxford County.

That vote kept hopes alive among Passamaquoddy tribal leaders and Hollywood Slots officials that they can secure a place on the ballot for a broader measure.

The “competing measure” would authorize not only the Oxford proposal but also a Washington County casino and the addition of table games in Bangor. Voters then would have three choices: the stand-alone Oxford proposal, a 3-pronged competing measure or no expansion of gambling anywhere in Maine this year.

Rep. Stacey Allen Fitts, R-Pittsfield, told his House colleagues that he believes the competing measure could avoid the regionalism that has doomed several other gambling ballot initiatives. Fitts also noted that the company behind the original Oxford casino plan, Black Bear Entertainment, is supportive of the three-part competing measure.

“This proposal would afford the state of Maine the opportunity to consider this on a statewide basis rather than pitting one region against another,” said Fitts, who helped develop the alternative ballot question.

But other lawmakers, including some from the Bangor area, are preparing their own alternative, competing proposals. With legislative leaders hoping to wrap up the session by the middle of next week, there isn’t much time left for supporters to work out a deal amenable to both the House and the more gambling-wary Senate.

“We’ll see,” commented Gov. Bill Nicholas with the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Indian Township reservation.

The Legal and Veterans’ Affairs Committee voted 9-4 two weeks ago to put only the Oxford County referendum question on the November ballot.

During House debate Wednesday, Waterville Democratic Rep. Pamela Jabar Trinward, the co-chairwoman of the committee, said the majority of members felt the 3-part proposal was introduced too late in the legislative session.

“The committee felt very pressured and didn’t feel that we had enough time to work the competing measure,” Trinward said.

Other lawmakers argued that the Legislature should not add another question to the June ballot out of respect for the 105,000 Mainers who signed petitions forcing a statewide vote only on the Oxford County casino.

But those arguments fell short. Lawmakers voted 81-69 to open the door for consideration of amendments and competing measures.

Rep. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative to the Legislature, argued that the Oxford-only proposal was too restrictive.

“The legislation would deny the rights for Eastern Maine or any other part of Maine to have a gaming facility,” Soctomah said. “Each year the Maine tribes are told to wait another year, and we’ll try to keep working on this. I would ask you to look at the bigger picture on this and to give people an option.”

There is work occurring behind the scenes to ensure that the 3-part competing measure isn’t the only option presented to the Legislature, however.

Rep. Jim Martin, D-Orono, is working on a ballot proposal to authorize a 2-year pilot project allowing table games at Hollywood Slots as well as 50 slot machines each for the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation. That would allow the state to study the issues surrounding a casino and adopt regulations, he said.

Martin’s proposal would not include a casino in Oxford.

Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment, predicted that creating a situation where voters have to choose between a western Maine casino and gambling on tribal lands could create unnecessary tensions and lead to neither area winning at the polls.

“I think that would set back tribal relations in the state many, many years,” Peter Martin said.

But Rep. Martin, who is no relation to Black Bear Entertainment’s Martin, said he merely wants to slow down the process and give people a “policy choice.”

“My intention has not been to create a regional divide at all, but instead to create a real policy option for the people of Maine,” Martin said. “The full-blown proposal of three casinos is not a good option.”

The House could consider the amendments and competing proposals later this week. It is unclear how the measures will be received in the Senate, however.

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