AUGUSTA, Maine — The president of the Maine Senate on Thursday abandoned a last-ditch effort that he hoped would clear the path for the direct authorization of a Biddeford racino and a partner facility in Washington County.
Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, confirmed Thursday afternoon that he had submitted legislation that would have sent the racino project to a county referendum following full authorization by the Legislature — a move Raye hoped would shake Gov. Paul LePage from his vow to veto any gambling proposal that didn’t first go to voters.
The move was initially characterized by a proponent of an approved Oxford County casino as “11th-hour, 59th-minute shenanigans.” It was also blasted by proponents of a 1,500-slot-machine facility planned for Lewiston’s Bates Mill No. 5. Those supporters were crestfallen after learning this week that their project was headed to referendum after the Senate voted against direct authorization.
By Thursday evening, Raye said he’d changed his mind, saying the new bill “would not work.”
Dan Billings, LePage’s legal counsel, said the new legislation raised constitutional issues.
Raye had hoped his new bill would persuade the governor not to send the Biddeford-Washington project to referendum because it would have required any gambling project authorized by the Legislature to also be approved by voters in the county where the facility would be located.
LePage has expressed support for county approval of gaming projects.
Even if Raye stayed the course on the new legislation, it’s unclear whether the new bill would have garnered the necessary support in the Legislature, or budged LePage from his referendum stance.
Billings said the governor was concerned about the overall fairness of authorizing Biddeford-Washington County given that the Legislature had already decided to send the Lewiston casino proposal to referendum.
“He’s … concerned about both initiated bills being treated in a similar manner,” Billings said.
As are proponents of the Lewiston project, who were still smarting from the Senate’s decision to authorize Biddeford-Washington but not their proposal.
Stavros Mendros, a stakeholder in the Lewiston project, described Raye’s proposal as a “last-minute trick.” However, Mendros remained hopeful that LePage, who was raised in Lewiston, wouldn’t go for it.
“Even if the Senate didn’t treat us fairly, we hoped the governor would,” Mendros said. “We were hopeful that he would remember his hometown.”
Backers of the Oxford County casino also were worried about Raye’s proposal.
Peter Martin of Black Bear Entertainment, the group behind the Oxford proposal, said Thursday all gaming proposals before the Legislature this session should be treated the same way Oxford was.
The project was rejected by voters in 2008, but approved in 2010.
“If we’re going to create five casinos and 7,500 slot machines, the public really needs to weigh in on that,” Martin said.
He said stakeholders in the Oxford project, including local business moguls Bob Bahre and Steve Barber, were troubled by the recent developments. Martin said Thursday afternoon that Bahre was flying to Augusta in hope of meeting with the governor to express his displeasure.
“Hopefully, the governor won’t acquiesce to some backdoor dealings this late in the session, and he’ll be a man of his word,” Martin said.
Black Bear leaders have expressed concern that the authorization of both projects would hurt the Oxford project before it gets off the ground.
Raye’s decision to pull back the new legislation should temporarily disarm a gambling lobby that’s been on edge for weeks.
Some had worried that the Biddeford-Washington project would receive preferential treatment because it was backed by influential parties, including Raye and Ocean Properties, a firm with some influence in the State House.
Raye voted twice to authorize the Lewiston project directly. He said it was unfortunate the project didn’t receive enough support in the Senate. However, he said, “having lived through this in Washington County, we’re 18 years into it. Lewiston is one year into it.”
The original bill calling for racinos in Biddeford and Washington County sits on the Appropriations Committee table awaiting funding for the costs of a possible referendum.
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