Do you want to allow a slot machine facility at a harness racing track in Biddeford or another community within 25 miles of Scarborough Downs, subject to local approval, and at a harness racing track in Washington County, with part of the profits from these facilities going to support specific state and local programs?
The proposal to build a slots casino affiliated with the Scarborough Downs harness racing track in Biddeford and a track and a casino to Calais is worthy of voter approval. A yes vote on Question 2 is responsible, even though the casinos won’t bring Maine the kind of sustainable, equitable and far-reaching prosperity it needs.
The most persuasive reason for approving these casinos is that they are not unlike many other businesses. The only reason we vote statewide on casino projects is because of 19th century laws adopted as part of Maine’s first-in-the-nation steps into alcohol prohibition. Slot machines in saloons were seen as problematic as booze, so they were banned. Those laws remain on the books, hence the statewide votes.
For better or worse, the cultural and moral taboo on casino gambling in Maine is tattered and faded. What ended the taboo was the relatively benign effect of Hollywood Slots, the Bangor casino affiliated with the Bangor harness racing track. That casino has established itself in the Bangor business community as a professionally run, attractively appointed facility. It draws customers who willingly open their wallets and spend; it may not be money they can afford to lose, but that happens at lots of other businesses as well.
While casinos are not top-of-the-line examples of economic development, we are ready to consider them as legitimate businesses, just as bars, bowling alleys, water parks, video arcades and golf courses are legitimate, entertainment and recreational businesses.
Had the Legislature been forward-looking on casino gambling, it would have established three acceptable locations: south of Portland, Washington County and Western Maine would be logical sites, far enough from each other to limit competition, yet near population centers. That forward-looking Legislature also would have created a consistent, sensible law governing how those casinos would operate — age of employees, types of games, how much money flowed into which public coffers and so on.
Alas, legislators did not create such a law, fearing they would be seen as endorsing an activity which Mainers, until last November when they endorsed the Oxford County casino, generally opposed.
There is no doubt a kind of casino fatigue hangs in the air. We have voted so many times on these proposals that we are tiring of saying no. And the economy, the worst since the Great Depression, makes approving a multimillion-dollar building investment with the construction and service jobs that come with it, tempting.
Because casinos bestow about 50 percent of revenue on government, they are essentially a stealth tax collector. But clearly, it is a tax many are willing to pay.
It’s time to stop turning down bids for a Southern Maine and Washington County casino. A yes vote on Question 2 is the right choice.