Policy First is a Safe Bet

Posted April 02, 2010, at 5:33 p.m.

Backers of proposals to put several casino options — not just the one in Oxford County — out to voters are right that a better approach to gambling questions is needed. But significantly expanding gambling, which the proposals would do, before a comprehensive state policy is developed is backwards.

Late last year, backers of a resort casino in Oxford County submitted more than 100,000 signatures to get a referendum seeking approval of their project on the November ballot. In recent weeks, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation, which have tried unsuccessfully to get voter approval of gambling projects, have sought to piggyback on the Oxford question. Hollywood Slots at Bangor also wants its proposal — to expand its offerings to include table games — included in the competing question.

The groups are using a procedure that allows the Legislature to put a “competing measure” on the ballot alongside the Oxford County casino question. This would relieve them of having to gather signatures for separate ballot questions on their proposals in the future.

To date, Maine has treated gambling questions as if they were special and unique. The number of times that voters have faced questions on allowing casinos — coupled with the steady growth in gambling across the country — shows that this is no longer the case.

Rather than continue this piecemeal approach, which allows each developer to write its own rules, often to limit competition, and then requires voters to consider each proposal separately, a more thoughtful plan is clearly required.

A competing measure can offer this if it asks voters if they want the Legislature to write rules to foster an expansion of gambling, both in terms of geography and the types of games that will be allowed. The Legislature would then write regulations with regard to how close together casinos can be, how many there can be in the state, what standards they must meet and how gambling proceeds will be allocated, rather than leaving this to individual companies.

Under this approach, the state’s Indian tribes, Hollywood Slots and others could then apply to the state to open new facilities and to expand their offerings, knowing what requirements they must meet.

Having these decisions made by the Legislature, rather than voters during expensive and sometimes heated campaigns, is a more rational approach. It would avoid letting such important decisions be based on how many people turned out to vote, what else was on the ballot and who hired the best campaign directors and raised the most money.

“I think it’s time for us to step up and say ‘This is what our policy is going to be,’” said Rep. James Martin, D-Orono, during House debate on the bills this week. He proposed that Hollywood Slots be allowed table games and that the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes each be allowed to run 50 slot machines as a pilot project. After two years, the Gambling Control Board would recommend a comprehensive policy to lawmakers.

Because Hollywood Slot has been operational for nearly five years, a test project isn’t needed, but a comprehensive policy is.

The Legislature should focus its attention on developing that policy before expanding gambling.

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