AUGUSTA, Maine — The LePage administration on Wednesday said it supported efforts to allow table games such as poker at Hollywood Slots in Bangor, but would prefer that voters in the area are given a chance to weigh in before the cards are dealt.
“The governor doesn’t have any concern about table games being added to Hollywood Slots,” Dan Billings, chief legal counsel for Gov. Paul LePage, told members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee during a morning hearing on LD 1418. “It’s an existing facility that has a track record. It’s a much different idea than putting a new facility in an area.”
Billings did say the governor, in keeping with his position during the 2010 campaign, would like to see some type of local referendum — perhaps a countywide vote — on the Bangor plan.
LePage’s preference for such a vote doesn’t stem from any strong feelings either for or against casino gambling, Billings said. It instead stems from the mixed messages Maine voters have sent on the issue of casino gambling over the years.
In the past decade, Maine voters have approved only the Bangor and Oxford County facilities, but have rejected several other attempts to expand casino gambling to southern Maine and Washington County.
Bangor City Manager Catherine Conlow was among those to suggest to the committee that a local referendum was not needed to add table games in Bangor because the city’s voters already have expressed their support for casino-style gambling by authorizing the Bangor slots facility.
While LePage might prefer to see a local referendum on table games in Bangor, Billings said the absence of such a vote would not necessarily cause the governor to veto LD 1418 should the Legislature send it to his desk.
“We haven’t drawn that line in the sand,” Billings said after the hearing.
That line was a little clearer last week as lawmakers were considering two citizen-initiated bills that would create three more gambling venues in Lewiston, Biddeford and on tribal land in Washington County.
Because those bills would expand casino gambling to other areas of the state, LePage likely would veto the bills should the Legislature pass them outright and not send them to a statewide referendum in November, Billings said last week.
The governor sees the addition of table games in Bangor as an issue of fairness, Billings told the committee. Under existing state law, Hollywood Slots can operate only slot machines at its Bangor facility. The 2010 referendum vote that allowed Oxford County to open a casino allows it to host slots and table games such as poker, blackjack, roulette and craps.
Fairness is also the reason the governor supports efforts to tax all gambling facilities in the same way, Billings said. Hollywood Slots falls under a different tax structure than that which was approved for the Oxford County casino.
Supporters of LD 1418, including its sponsor, Rep. Douglas Damon, R-Bangor, raised the fairness issue several times during the hearing. They said the addition of table games to Bangor also would make Hollywood Slots a more “complete destination” and create more jobs and more tax revenue for the state.
John Osborne, the general manager of Hollywood Slots, said the Bangor facility would add 14 table games and more than 65 employees. He predicted those games would generate $5.3 million in annual revenue, about $850,000 of which would go into state coffers.
Although no one testified against the bill during Wednesday’s hearing, some committee members were skeptical.
Among them was Sen. John Patrick, a Democrat from Oxford County, where ground already has been broken on the state’s first full-fledged casino. Patrick on Wednesday questioned the fairness argument. He suggested that since Hollywood Slots has had six years as the state’s only slots operator, it would be fair to let the Oxford County casino operate table games for six years without any competition from within the state.
Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, was on the committee that crafted the laws that govern Hollywood Slots, the state’s first major gambling facility. Valentino said that while she supported allowing Hollywood Slots to add table games, the issue of taxation needed to be resolved. Until it was, she said she could not support the bill.
Resolving the taxation issue could prove the trickiest task for the committee.
Billings and others suggested that issue be settled later, perhaps after November. That’s when voters likely will be asked to weigh in on proposals for the new gambling facilities in Lewiston, Biddeford and Washington County. That vote, in turn, will give lawmakers a better sense of how many casinos will be operating in the state before they decide how to tax the revenue from those facilities.
A work session on LD 1418 will be held Friday.