July 23, 2018
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A Better Bet on Gambling

Michael C. York | AP
Michael C. York | AP
A semi-partition separates the hotel and dining areas from the gaming area, with slot machines, at Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway in Bangor. Persons under 21 years of age are not allowed in the gaming area of the casino unless they are employees, but they are allowed in the hotel and dining areas which share the main floor of the casino.

After more than a decade of referendums on gambling, some of them successful, most of them not, it is time for a better approach that ensures future gaming facilities — which are inevitable —- are located and managed in ways that benefit the entire state.

The current system of putting gambling questions out to referendum votes, where deep pockets and turnout determine outcomes more than the merits of a project, doesn’t achieve this.

The question of gambling is not settled — although voter approval of a casino in Oxford County last year moved in the direction of a more solid “yes” — but our system of deciding is inefficient.

What is needed instead is a consistent, state-wide policy, where we consider gambling not in the context of singular campaigns but comprehensively in terms of where — and how many — gambling facilities will best benefit all of Maine. Then, the market can determine the best locations for any future projects.

Although imperfect, lawmakers can move in this direction by passing LD 1203, which would allow racinos in Biddeford and Calais. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 9:30 Monday before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The committee will also consider legislation, LD 985, to allow a slot machine facility in Lewiston.

Voters statewide in 2003 gave approval to gambling facilities at racetracks — known as racinos — in Bangor and Scarborough. The Bangor facility, Hollywood Slots, is up and running.

The southern Maine facility has hit many stumbling blocks, but voters in Biddeford last year gave the green light to a project there. Backers of the Biddeford Downs project gathered enough signatures to get the issue before state lawmakers again.

They also added a tribal racino in Washington County, an area where economic development is sorely needed. The Passamaquoddy Tribe has tried for years to be part of the expansion of gambling in Maine. But although support for their projects has been strong in local communities and Washington County, they have been rebuffed by voters statewide and by former Gov. John Baldacci.

Under the current process, lawmakers can either approve the bills, which came before them because tens of thousands of voters signed a petition, or put the questions out to the voters and let them decide. Holding more statewide referendum votes is a waste of money and won’t necessarily lead to the best outcome.

The Bangor Daily News has long opposed gambling projects, but voters, most recently in November, have disagreed. At the same time, we have called for a comprehensive approach to casinos and racinos, even suggesting that the Legislature enact a uniform set of standards for any future projects.

It is time to move forward on that approach, while acknowledging that gambling is and will continue to be a popular form of entertainment.

The best interests of Washington County, southern Maine and the Lewiston area — or any other places that are considering a casino — would be served by a state plan that maximizes the business potential of future gambling facilities, as well as job creation, so that these benefits are spread statewide.

It is past time for lawmakers to develop such a plan — that includes standards for locations, the number of casinos and consumer protections — rather than repeatedly passing these decisions back to voters.

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