Bills to create three new racinos in Maine clear first hurdle

Posted June 06, 2011, at 9:39 p.m.
Last modified June 09, 2011, at 6 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — House lawmakers voted Monday to approve bills that, if enacted, would allow developers to build three additional gambling facilities in Maine without having to wage costly, statewide campaigns at the ballot box.

But the measures’ supporters acknowledged that the House votes are initial steps in a lengthy process that has defeated similar proposals in recent years. The bills likely face closer votes in the Senate and a threatened veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

“We have been down this road a couple of times already,” said Chief Joseph Socabasin of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, one of the groups fighting for the right to get into the gambling business.

After lengthy debate, the House voted more than 2-to-1 to approve a bill, LD 1203, that would authorize the creation of two racinos — complexes offering both horse racing and slot facilities — in Biddeford and Calais. The Washington County facility would be operated by the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Lawmakers then quickly approved a second measure, LD 985, authorizing a racino and casino in Lewiston.

Both measures were initiated bills, meaning supporters gathered enough petition signatures to put the issues before voters during a statewide referendum. But first the Legislature has the opportunity to pass the bills, effectively bypassing the ballot box.

Maine voters have approved two gambling initiatives at the ballot box during the past decade: Hollywood Slots racino in Bangor, which was authorized in a 2003 referendum, and the yet-to-be-built resort casino in Oxford County endorsed by voters last November. The Oxford facility will feature Maine’s first full casino with table games.

Other groups have succeeded in shepherding their measures through the Legislature only to see them die on the governor’s desk. Gov. John Baldacci vetoed a bill authorizing a Passamaquoddy racino in 2007 and the measure failed at the ballot box months later.

But on Monday, supporters of the combined Biddeford-Calais bill said those projects deserve to move forward now.

“We know the Passamaquoddys are well positioned to fast-track this proposal in the host city of Calais,” said Rep. Michael Willette, R-Presque Isle. “This will put people to work in a part of Maine that for too long has been one of the poorest counties in the country.”

If approved, LD 1203 would authorize up to 1,500 slot machines as well as racetracks in both Biddeford and Calais, providing jobs to racino employees as well as an economic boost to Maine’s harness racing and equestrian industry.

The Biddeford project would replace Scarborough Downs, which received voter approval for a racino in 2003 but failed to win support from local voters.

The Biddeford project would create an estimated 800 construction jobs as well as 500 full-time positions once the racino was in full operation. Figures are not available for the proposed racino in Calais, however, proponents predicted it would have a sizable economic impact.

In a lengthy and at times emotional floor speech, Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe recounted how many times her community has sought approval for a gambling facility and failed.

With unemployment rates four to five times higher than the state average, Passamaquoddy communities are desperate for economic development and are eager to do it without government subsidies or programs, Soctomah said.

“After 17 years, we are still here asking for equity — equity in our continuing effort to survive in today’s economy,” Soctomah said.

But opponents pointed out that every expansion of gambling in Maine has passed through voters first, and the recent Oxford vote passed with just 51 percent of the vote.

Critics said the two bills endorsed by the House on Monday would represent a seismic shift — 4,500 additional slot machines on top of the 3,000 already authorized by law in Bangor and Oxford County.

“What we are being asked to do is support the largest gambling expansion in Maine with at least 50 percent of our citizens being opposed to the expansion of gambling,” said Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico.

The bills now heads to the Senate for consideration. If approved by the full Legislature, the bills would be sent to LePage’s desk for consideration. But during the committee hearing process, LePage’s legal counsel indicated the governor likely would veto the measures, thereby allowing voters to decide the issue.

“We are happy with the vote but at the same time we know we still have a long road ahead of us,” Chief Socabasin said.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story should have said that House lawmakers gave initial approval to plans to build a casino in Lewiston as well as racinos — facilities that offer horse racing and slot machines — in Biddeford and Washington County.

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