AUGUSTA, Maine — The long-running debate over gambling in Maine is on the verge of a new chapter. The question is whether the debate will be among legislators in Augusta or the voters of Maine.
With the Hollywood Slots racino in Bangor up and running and ground already broken on a resort casino in Oxford, two citizen-initiated bills under consideration by the Legislature would create three more gambling venues in Lewiston, Biddeford and on tribal land in Washington County.
The Legislature has the choice of passing them outright or — as has been its preference on this issue in recent years — sending the questions to voters statewide.
Dan Billings, legal counsel for Gov. Paul LePage, said during testimony Monday that LePage likely would veto either of the bills if the Legislature opts to pass them because LePage believes the issue is better decided by referendum.
“If we pass this bill would the governor veto it?” asked Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, during testimony on LD 985, An Act Regarding Establishing a Slot Machine Facility, which proponents forwarded with the intention of building a gambling facility in one of the vacant mills in Lewiston.
“I think that is his inclination,” responded Billings, who later repeated that sentiment during debate over LD 1203, An Act to Amend the Laws Governing the Deadline and Conditions for Municipal Approval of a Second Racino and Allow a Tribal Racino in Washington County.
That bill would allow racinos in Biddeford and Washington County.
Billings said LePage isn’t passionately for or against casinos, but believes the issue should be decided by voters at the state and local levels, not lawmakers. That is in line with LePage’s statements during his campaign for governor, though he has not previously threatened a veto of legislative action on this issue.
Proponents of both bills argued during daylong hearings before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Monday that if Bangor and Oxford can have gambling, other locations in the state should as well.
Ed Barrett, the former Bangor city manager who is now a city administrator in Lewiston, was among the supporters of the two measures.
“I saw firsthand the impact of Hollywood Slots,” he said, listing as attributes the new jobs, revenue to the city and financial support for a new arena to replace Bangor Auditorium.
“Hollywood Slots’ impact on Bangor has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “The same thing can happen in Lewiston.”
Other Lewiston officials said they feared the casino resort being built in Oxford, which was passed by referendum last year, would siphon people away from downtown Lewiston and nullify decades of efforts to attract tourists.
“From a regional economic development perspective, putting a casino next to an economic development hub as opposed to in it is insane,” said Peter Robinson, president of Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment. “You are now taking money, people and jobs out of a city and into a small town to the detriment of the city.”
Chief Joseph Socabasin of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township said Maine is the only state in the nation that doesn’t extend gaming rights to tribes under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
“The tribe understands that gaming is not the panacea for our economic difficulties, but it can play a positive role in tourism,” he said. “The tribe’s objective has always been the same, to treat native Mainers fairly … and create jobs in eastern Maine.”
But how many gambling venues Maine can support, the social problems they might create and whether the state and hosting municipalities receive a fair share of revenues were the focus of opponents, including two new gambling opposition groups who unveiled themselves at Monday’s hearing after forming in recent weeks.
Matthew Boucher of Ellsworth, a 24-year-old member of the City Council, is one of the people behind a group called No More Casinos Maine, which recently registered as a political action committee with the Maine Commission on Ethics and Election Practices. Boucher, who said he started the group with Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, said he never has been active in the debate over casinos before.
“We think these questions should go to referendum,” Clark told the Bangor Daily News. “We want this debate to happen in public.”
The other new group in the debate is called Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, which has not registered itself as a political action committee but is garnering grassroots opposition to the Biddeford racino.
“We’re just a group of local people who want to oppose the expansion of gambling,” Marc Worrell of Biddeford, the group’s president, told the BDN. “Why I got involved is because of the economic straits we’re in. I don’t see a casino as an answer to our economic situation.”
The two bills discussed Monday will be the subject of a work session in the coming weeks and eventually a vote by both houses of the Legislature.