Odds against tribe casino, table games

Posted April 02, 2010, at 8:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal that could have brought gambling to Washington County and enabled Hollywood Slots to expand suffered a major legislative defeat on Friday.

House lawmakers voted 83-59 to kill a proposed ballot question seeking authorization for a resort casino in Oxford County, a casino run by the Passamaquoddy Tribe and table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

The measure, LD 1808, is not entirely dead yet, although the odds do not appear stacked in favor of those supporting the 3-part ballot question. The Senate is expected to vote on the issue early next week.

Maine voters will cast ballots this November on whether to expand gambling in the state regardless of the outcome in the Legislature. The only question is the number of options to be presented to voters.

The company Black Bear Entertainment LLC already has secured a spot on the November ballot for a referendum seeking voter approval for a four-season resort casino in Oxford County.

The House vote on Friday — and similar action in the Senate next week — would mean voters would either vote “yes” or “no” on the Oxford proposal with no other options.

But Black Bear officials have been working feverishly with representatives of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Hollywood Slots on a larger, alternative ballot measure that they believed might win broader support across the state. If approved by the Legislature, that three-pronged measure would appear on the ballot alongside Black Bear’s original, Oxford-only proposal.

Rep. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy representative to the Legislature, urged his colleagues on Friday to support the “competing measure” as a way to end the regional tensions that have led to the defeat of several previous casino initiatives.

“I think the competing measure will give the people a choice and will stop this regionalization in the state of precluding Eastern Maine from economic development,” Soctomah said.

Earlier this week, House lawmakers voted 81-69 to keep the competing measure alive to allow more debate. But by Friday more than a dozen Democrats had switched their votes to kill the bill outright after the parties discussed the issue several times in caucus.

Rep. Jim Martin, D-Orono, had joined the supporters of the three-party compromise after Black Bear officials agreed to accept the same tax structure that already applies to Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

Previously, Martin had been pushing for a pilot project allowing table games in Bangor plus 50 slot machines for both the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes but nothing for Oxford County.

“We need to continue this discussion about how we break down these regional barriers,” Martin said after Friday’s vote.

Black Bear’s decision to join forces with the Passamaquoddy and Hollywood Slots was a strategic one. In 2008, voters in both Penobscot and Washington counties voted heavily against an earlier Oxford casino proposal. And the owner of Hollywood Slots, Penn National Gaming, is a large corporation that could help defeat the Oxford casino.

But Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear, said the company strongly supports the tribes’ rights to have gaming as well as Hollywood Slots’ desire for table games such as poker and blackjack. The company’s original ballot initiative would still require Hollywood Slots to seek legislative approval for table games, however.

Martin, who is not related to the Orono legislator, said they will continue to push for the competing measure in the Senate.

“We are prepared to go it alone if that is the final determination here,” he said.

Black Bear estimates the four-season resort, convention center, restaurant and casino would create nearly 1,000 well-paying jobs in the economically depressed area of western Maine plus up to 800 construction jobs.

The casino is also forecast to generate tens of millions of dollars annually in tax payments to the state, including $25 million or more every year for kindergarten through 12th-grade programs.

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