May 25, 2018
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Bingo machines pit Indians vs. state

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis and other tribal representatives say they have been working for two years to add a new level of entertainment at the tribe’s high stakes bingo parlor.

Earlier this year, Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell even helped craft legislation that aimed to pave the way for what are known as Class II pull-tab bingo machines.

Yet months after that legislation passed, the machines sit in storage on Indian Island because the state has not issued licenses for them.

“We worked meticulously on the bill and it got passed. Almost immediately, there was pushback on how that law would be interpreted. From our perspective, we couldn’t have been more clear,” Francis said Thursday.

The law, LD 1731, An Act to Amend the Bingo Laws, was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci in March.

The law authorizes the use of a “lucky seven” dispenser by a licensed Indian tribe in connection with the sale of lucky seven tickets or raffle tickets. It also defines a “lucky seven dispenser” as any video, mechanical, electrical or electronic device or machine that, upon the insertion of money, tokens, credit or something of value, dispenses printed lucky seven tickets or raffle tickets.”

Francis said the machines essentially are an extension of what the bingo parlor already provides and are not slot machines.

“It has to do with random winnings versus a pre-determined outcome,” the Penobscot chief said. “In our machines, there is a pre-determined outcome and a fixed profit. The element of chance is removed.”

Lt. David Bowler with the Maine State Police gaming division disagreed and said he believes there has been a breakdown in communication over exactly what the machines would do.

“It’s the department’s opinion that they are not in compliance,” he said. “A key component of the law is that the element of chance is provided by the ticket itself, not the dispenser. These machines were supposed to be just vending machines that replace the person handing the tickets out.”

Bowler said he expected that the machines proposed by the Penobscots would be similar to those that recently were installed by the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township. He said that neither he nor anyone from the state has seen a demonstration of the Penobscots’ machines.

The state police lieutenant also stressed that although the Penobscots may have been working for two years to implement the new machines, his office wasn’t contacted until early this year.

The Penobscots are trying to retain customers that they have worked for years to attract, some of whom are abandoning Indian Island for Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway in Bangor, Francis said. Penobscot officials have further alleged that the state is being pressured by lobbyists representing Hollywood Slots and its parent company, Penn National Gaming Inc.

“We have a huge lobby working against us in Augusta,” Francis said. “This gambling interest in Bangor has really solidified itself politically to be the only player in town. We don’t begrudge them, but at the same time, what we’re asking for is different and the pushback doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Bowler dismissed allegations that Hollywood Slots had anything to do with the state’s decision.

“I have no knowledge of any lobbying. The department has no knowledge. We do not work with Hollywood Slots on any gaming bills. They are a completely different world,” he said. “We want to guide and assist [gaming applicants]. We’re not trying to break them up.”

Attempts on Thursday to reach John Osborne, general manager of Hollywood Slots, were unsuccessful.

From his perspective, Bowler said the Penobscots can either change the machines or try again to change the laws. If the unlicensed machines were used, he said, state police could come in and seize them, something that has happened before on Indian Island.

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