AUGUSTA, Maine — Proponents of a 1,500-slot-machine facility planned for Lewiston’s former Bates Mill No. 5 were crestfallen Thursday after the Maine Senate voted 17-16 to send the project to referendum rather than to authorize it outright.
The decision followed the Senate’s identical 17-16 vote to directly authorize a planned Biddeford racino and a partner facility in Washington County.
Seven senators supported the Biddeford project but voted against the Lewiston proposal.
Although all projects could meet the same fate if Gov. Paul LePage follows through on his promise to veto the Legislature’s authorization — a vow he reiterated this week — backers of the Lewiston casino were miffed by Thursday’s action.
“All along, all we’ve asked is to be treated the same,” said Stavros Mendros, a stakeholder in the Lewiston project. “We’ve supported the Biddeford project and even testified in favor of it. We’re more than happy to compete with them if both projects are approved.”
He added, “In some ways it feels like it’s happened again; Lewiston is thrown under the bus. It’s very disappointing.”
Lewiston casino backers will have another chance to persuade senators. The proposal will head to the House before another vote in the Senate.
However, it remains to be seen whether the projects will be treated evenly. The Biddeford-Washington County project has been one of the most heavily lobbied bills this session. It also has the backing of Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
During Thursday’s floor debate, Raye surrendered the rostrum to speak on behalf of the Biddeford-Washington County proposal. He said it was time for the Legislature to break with tradition and authorize gambling proposals, adding that previous elected leaders “have punted.”
“Maine is a gambling state,” he said. “The only issue before us is whether the winners and losers continue to be decided at referendum.”
In a lengthy floor speech, Raye highlighted the economic struggles of Washington County and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which has repeatedly sought to develop gambling facilities.
Raye said the region continually was bypassed by visitors heading north to Canada or to southern Maine.
“If we’re lucky, they’ll stop for a tank of gas,” he said.
Opponents of both projects have warned about the consequences, saying Maine could soon have five gaming facilities, a total that far exceeds any other New England state.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, worried that green-lighting Lewiston and Biddeford would “deep-six” the approved Oxford casino “before it begins.”
Debate over the Lewiston casino was much shorter, as members of the local delegation explained their support for the project despite objecting to gambling in principle.
Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, said the state can’t stop gambling because it had historically spurned other economic development through regulatory burden.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said she feared the Lewiston proposal would shift the city’s focus on people “seeking quick riches,” rather than dealing with the city’s poverty.
Craven also noted that Lewiston voters last year voted nearly 2-1 in favor of selling the Bates Mill property to Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC for $150,000 for the casino.
The House of Representatives on Monday voted 78-61 to directly authorize the project rather than send the proposal to voters. The vote came on the heels of the House’s landslide decision, 94-49, to give first approval to the Biddeford-Washington County project.
Like other gambling legislation, LD 985, the Lewiston project, and LD 1203, the Biddeford project, are citizen initiatives and written so that the Legislature can authorize them. However, the Legislature has typically pushed gambling projects to statewide votes.
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