Quick action on gambling likely

Posted Dec. 26, 2010, at 6:33 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Facing a likely constitutional deadline, lawmakers are looking at changes they want to make to the law allowing a casino in Oxford County before groups supporting casinos in Biddeford, Lewiston and one for the state’s Indian tribes file petitions forcing consideration of those proposals.

“My phone started ringing the day after the election,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, the assistant Senate majority leader. “Everybody seems to want something changed.”

She said many assumed that, as the GOP senator on the Veteran and Legal Affairs Committee last session, she would lead the panel this year. She will be on the committee, but not as chairwoman.

“It is something that will need to be taken up immediately,” Plowman said. “And it is going to have to be passed as an emergency.”

She said lawmakers would be under pressure because of constitutional provisions that limit what they can pass after citizen-initiated bills are presented. Any changes could be a “competing measure” under the Constitution, and lawmakers have shied away from putting their own proposals on the ballot in competition to those initiated by petition.

“The pressure of the initiated bills means we will be working like they did in 2004 to try and pull something together quick in a piecemeal fashion that leaves us with unintended consequences,” Plowman said. “It’s really distressing.”

The Democratic senator on the panel, Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, served previously on the committee as a House representative and agreed the 2004 legislation after approval of a racino in Bangor resulted in an intense period of negotiating before an agreement was reached.

“But we are not starting from scratch like we did then,” he said. “We have the [Gambling Control] Board in place. If people want to make the changes needed to add the laws for a casino, that’s fine, but if all the special interests want to make changes to gambling laws, that will be very difficult to do.”

Patrick said if Hollywood Slots, which operates slot machines in Bangor, seeks table gaming authority, or if other gambling interests seek legislative permission to build a casino, it will be very difficult to get anything approved in a few weeks. He said some of those issues might have to be delayed until the second session because they are likely to be contentious.

Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, a member of the committee who served on it last session, agreed with Patrick that a major rewrite of gambling laws in just a few weeks would be very difficult to handle.

“If it’s doing things like making sure there is accountability in how the money is distributed, like the report we just did, I think there will be support for that,” she said.

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, who served on the panel last session, said that although he is not on the committee this year, he is sure the issues will be the same and will draw interest from a lot of lawmakers.

“I think we will have discussion over the 100-mile-radius issue; there is some discussion on how the cascade is treated,” he said. “There is the issue of what to do about Hollywood Slots and their desire to have table games.”

Fitts said there were discussions among panel members earlier this year about the Oxford ballot question and the petitions being circulated for additional casinos. He said there is bipartisan concern about making sure all casinos have adequate oversight and about accountability for how the revenues are used.

Valentino said she would like to see the state end the piecemeal approach to casino gambling and put the question of operating a casino out to bid so the state can maximize the benefits from gambling.

“I think we could get a better deal by putting out an RFP and get competing proposals and site a casino where it’s best to site it,” she said.

Valentino said she planned to introduce legislation but recognizes it may have to be carried over to the second session because of the complications caused by the likely initiated bills.

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