LePage threatens veto of table games in Bangor

Posted June 22, 2011, at 1:31 p.m.
Last modified June 22, 2011, at 6:36 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday morning that he would veto a bill allowing Hollywood Slots in Bangor to add blackjack, poker and other table games despite his administration’s earlier support for the measure.

But it was unclear Wednesday afternoon whether the governor had changed his mind about the bill or merely confused it with two measures proposing new racinos in Maine. The governor’s chief legal counsel later indicated that — unlike the two racino bills — the Hollywood Slots legislation could avoid a gubernatorial veto depending on the final wording of the measure.

“The governor hasn’t been briefed on this bill since it came out of committee,” Dan Billings, the governor’s legal counsel, said in an interview.

During a radio interview with WVOM morning talk show hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler, LePage was asked whether he would sign the bill allowing Hollywood Slots to expand beyond slot machines.

The bill, LD 1418, has not yet been approved by the Legislature, although it has cleared several votes in both chambers. But LePage said he had no plans to sign the bill into law.

“I’m going to veto it so it goes to referendum,” LePage said. Attempting to clarify, Tyler then followed up by asking whether LePage meant a statewide referendum since the bill requires a local vote. The governor answered with a simple “yes sir.”

“So you will be vetoing all of the gambling bills?” asked Hale.

“That is correct,” LePage replied.

But LePage’s statements contradict earlier testimony from his administration, indicating that the governor is either rethinking his earlier support or confused the Bangor table games measure with the two bills proposing new racinos in Calais, Biddeford and Lewiston.  

Back in May, Billings told members of a legislative committee that the administration was OK with the Bangor bill as long as local voters were given final say on the issue.

“The governor doesn’t have any concern about table games being added to Hollywood Slots,” Billings told members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee in May. “It’s an existing facility that has a track record. It’s a much different idea than putting a new facility in an area.”

The Hollywood Slots bill already would require Bangor voters to approve the addition of table games at Maine’s only operating slots facility.

But unlike the two racino bills, both of which are “initiated bills” resulting from petition drives, the Hollywood Slots bill would not go to a statewide vote if it passes the Legislature only to be vetoed by the governor. Supporters would have to muster two-thirds majority votes in both the House and Senate to override a gubernatorial veto.

The governor’s comments also caught Hollywood Slots officials off guard.

“We thought the local vote in Bangor would have met the desires of not only the local voters but also the governor,” said Hollywood Slots general manager John Osborne. “We were a little surprised by the interview this morning.”

Osborne said, however, that Hollywood Slots is optimistic that once “the subtleties” of the table games bill and the racino bills become clear that LePage will support the Bangor bill if it receives final approval in the Legislature.

On Wednesday, Billings acknowledged that the table games bill has not received as much of the governor’s attention as the two bills to create new racinos in Calais, Biddeford and Lewiston. LePage has said he would veto those bills, thereby sending them to a statewide referendum.

With so many bills emerging from the Legislature as the 2011 session draws to a close, administration staff often brief the governor on bills once they arrive on his desk, Billings said.

“It hasn’t reached his desk, so he hasn’t reviewed it yet,” Billings said. “The governor pays attention to details.”

As to whether LePage will sign the bill if it reaches his desk, Billings said that could depend on how the local election is set up. As written, the bill would allow Bangor voters to decide on whether to allow table games. The administration has, in the past, suggested that a countywide vote might be more appropriate.

“Ultimately, that is his decision,” Billings said. “But, again, we haven’t had that conversation yet.”

Authorized by voters during a statewide referendum in 2003, Hollywood Slots operates roughly 1,500 slot machines at its Main Street facility in Bangor. Hollywood Slots officials are hoping that last year’s voter approval of a full casino in Oxford County will help their fight to bring table games to Bangor.

Bill sponsor Rep. Douglas Damon, R-Bangor, said there has been “so much noise on the other two bills” that his was comparatively low profile. Damon said he hasn’t spoken recently with the governor about his bill but he is hopeful that, if it emerges from the Legislature, he will be able to convince LePage that the local referendum would be appropriate given the 2003 statewide vote and Hollywood Slots’ positive economic impact on Bangor.

“I haven’t made my case to him yet because, quite frankly, it isn’t there yet,” Damon said.

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