May 24, 2018
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New deal needed on casinos

Eric Zelz | BDN
Eric Zelz | BDN

There were far more reasons for Maine voters to approve three more casino gambling establishments than there were reasons to defeat the measures. Yet defeat them they did.

Consider the reasons to have voted in favor: hundreds of millions would have been spent on construction, creating hundreds of building trades jobs; hundreds of permanent jobs would have been created for operating the facilities; millions of dollars in revenue would have been diverted directly to state and local coffers and worthy nonprofit causes; the casinos would have landed some out-of-state spending and retained some Mainers’ spending that otherwise might go to casinos in Connecticut; and horse racing businesses would have been sustained with new money.

And all this economic activity could have been green-lighted in an otherwise dreary economic climate.

So why did voters shoot down these proposals?

It probably was not a moral question. There is little evidence that Mainers are offended by the state lottery. It probably was not fears of rampant crime following casinos. Hollywood Slots in Bangor has been a benign presence in the community.

One possible explanation is that voters want to wait and see how the Oxford casino, which was approved last November, functions once it is up and running. If both Question 2 and Question 3 passed, Maine would have had five casinos permitted.

Another explanation for the defeats is that voters became weary, and then wary, of the pie-in-the-sky nature of the sales pitch. They were told, in TV commercials and the almost daily glossy direct mailers, that casinos would end unemployment, swell the state budget, cure psoriasis and reverse male-pattern balding.

Despite the defeats in a climate conducive to approval, more gambling proposals will come forward. In fact, the people behind the Lewiston proposal already have pledged to do so.

But Maine has reached a continental divide on the issue because casinos soon may be built in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (one already exists in New Brunswick). Dreams of luring out-of-state dollars to Maine casinos have ended.

What is needed now is state leadership on this contentious issue, an argument we made before the Oxford casino was approved last year. The Legislature must consider casinos in the abstract. Legislators don’t have to vote on whether they want them, but they must craft a strategy for casinos.

First they should identify where casinos can operate. Since there are already casinos operating or approved in Bangor and Oxford, the only two locations that make sense are in eastern Washington County and south of Portland.

Second, the law should dictate just where the state revenue goes and the rules by which the casinos operate. A third stipulation would be requiring any would-be developer to post a substantial financial commitment before being eligible to proceed. The state might also consider setting a maximum number of slot machines that can operate here.

And the voters should have the final say.

The nightmare scenario that should spur legislative action is that the destination casinos which have been pitched so far are unfeasible and instead gambling entrepreneurs work to permit video slot machines in convenience stores throughout the state.

We can and must do better.

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