AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would have authorized slot machines at racetracks in Biddeford and Calais appears to have fallen victim to regional tensions in the Legislature and a threatened veto by Gov. Paul LePage.
Supporters of the proposal to create two new racinos — including one operated by the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Washington County — fell three votes short in the Senate on Tuesday, despite months of intense lobbying.
But because the measure was an initiated bill, the proposal’s apparent legislative failure means voters will have final say on the issue during a statewide referendum to be held this November.
That result came as no surprise to parties on either side of the debate. LePage, a Republican, has repeatedly vowed to veto the bill if it reached his desk, arguing any proposals for new gambling establishments should be decided at the ballot box.
However, Tuesday’s 15-19 vote in the Senate underscored the regional tensions in Maine over gambling.
Two Androscoggin County lawmakers who previously supported the bill — Democratic Sen. Margaret Craven of Lewiston and Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mellow of Poland — voted with the opposition on Tuesday. Their changes of heart came several weeks after the Senate rejected a bill authorizing a racino in Lewiston, thereby forcing a statewide referendum.
“This has been a painful process for me because I certainly support jobs for the state of Maine,” Craven said in a floor speech. “Lewiston also needs jobs — a lot of jobs — but I also believe in equal treatment.”
Snowe-Mello said she believed voters should have a say in such a critical issue, although she had voted to authorize racinos in Lewiston, Biddeford and Calais without voter approval earlier this the session.
“I just think we need to be fair,” Snowe-Mello said. “Send this out for a vote.”
Supporters of the bill, meanwhile, attempted unsuccessfully to convince their colleagues to vote for the bill to help two regions in need of economic development.
Senate President Kevin Raye, a Perry Republican who represents Passamaquoddy communities, pointed out that tribal members have been trying for 18 years to win legislative or voter approval for a gambling establishment.
“This entire debate was introduced to the state of Maine in 1993 by the Passamaquoddy people in Washington County,” Raye said. “Eighteen years later, we have seen two facilities approved — in Oxford and one in Bangor — but the Passamaquoddy people of Washington County are still on the outside.”
Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, bristled at a statement by fellow Democrat Sen. John Patrick of Rumford that he hoped the bill would “go down in flames.”
“May I never say that about any of your bills that are important to your community,” Sullivan said.
Speaking after the vote, Raye acknowledged that Tuesday’s vote was largely ceremonial because the bill faced an identical fate had it reached the governor’s desk. But Raye said LePage’s veto threats likely helped convince a few wavering senators to oppose the bill.
Raye noted that residents of Biddeford and Washington County have strongly supported bringing racinos to their communities.
“I hope voters will be mindful of that next November,” Raye said.