The overwhelming defeat of two gambling-related referendum questions by voters on Tuesday has hit the “pause” button on expanding the industry in Maine, political observers said Wednesday. The question is whether the pause becomes permanent.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, voters turned down Question 2, which would allow racinos in Biddeford and Washington County, in a 55 percent to 45 percent vote, according to results collected by the Bangor Daily News. Question 3, which would have authorized a casino for downtown Lewiston, lost by an even wider margin, 63 percent to 37 percent.
For many, it seemed the door to gaming had been slowly opening after years of effort to get initiatives passed — with a racino first approved for Bangor in 2004, then Maine’s first full-fledged casino approved for Oxford County last year.
But on Tuesday, voters slammed the door shut on new casinos — at least for now.
“I think it means ‘time out,’” said Edward “Ted” O’Meara, a veteran political strategist and managing principal for public affairs at Garrand in Portland.
Maine voters decided to see how the current racino, Hollywood Slots in Bangor, and the casino under construction in Oxford County work out before allowing more in, O’Meara suggested. Voters in Penobscot County Tuesday a pproved the addition of table games to the slot machines at Hollywood Slots.
Brian Duff, a political scientist at the University of New England, agreed.
“I think what happened was the ‘no casinos’ campaign had a very effective, very simple message — too much, too fast,” said Duff. “That’s a message that made a lot of sense to people: ‘How quickly do we want Maine to become a casino state?’”
Marv Druker, a political scientist at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston campus, said he thought people essentially voted their self interests.
“People are reluctant to have too many until they see what we have with the two,” said Druker. “People want to see what it’s going to be like.”
O’Meara said he thought the votes may have been closer, given the state’s generally tough economic situation and the overwhelming importance of job creation to Mainers. He said Garrand recently updated a survey for a client that they had initially done five years ago. Then, jobs and the economy were important, in the top tier. But in the new survey, jobs “just dwarfed everything else.”
Question 2 supporters really hammered home the job creation issue, saying that a new hotel-racino in Biddeford would create up to 800 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs.
But O’Meara said supporters may have overplayed their hand — talking too much about jobs and programs racino revenues would support, without enough acknowledgement and discussion about the gambling part of the equation.
“Their direct mail pieces, if you didn’t know better, you’d think we were voting on an education bonds issue,” he said. “I’ve got no data on this, but I just wonder if there wasn’t a little bit of a backlash there.”
Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin political scientist, said he thought Gov. Paul LePage’s answer to a question posed at a forum also had an impact on what voters did.
Gov. LePage said last Thursday during remarks at Colby College that if both measures passed, the developers will have to collaborate because Maine cannot support five gambling facilities of the scale proposed. LePage said the population is too small to support more than two or three such facilities.
“I think the governor took a fairly courageous stand but a correct one, in saying that Maine can’t support five casinos,” said Potholm. “Common-sensibly, that’s a pretty powerful argument, even though he’s in favor of casinos.”
Now, said Potholm, the Legislature and governor should draw up “iron-clad” priorities and bills that set up a framework for casinos and racinos in Maine, regulating payoffs, revenue sharing, and other issues.
Because, he said, the issue will come up again.
“Pro-gambling forces do not give up. It’s such a lucrative proposition for the people who own the casinos, they keep trying to find a way,” said Potholm.
Duff agreed, but thought Tuesday’s votes may slow down the proposals a bit.
“We will see more in the future, but I don’t think they’ll be coming so fast and furious,” Duff suggested.
But Maine isn’t in a vacuum. Other proposals in neighboring states may take some of the wind from potential Maine gambling developments, with potentially less money to be made here by casino operators.
A popular plan in Massachusetts would call for licensing three casinos in three regions of the state, and one slots parlor. One of the casinos would be in northeastern Massachusetts, and a popular proposal puts a $1.3 billion resort casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.
And in New Hampshire, the Legislature has considered a new bill that would authorize two resort casinos. The first casino would likely be sited at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H. The proposal is for a $450 million development, with 5,000 slot machines and table games.
An expansion of gambling in those states —- and the continued existence of gambling in Connecticut — may make Maine developments less lucrative, with fewer potential visitors coming here to gamble.
“Are you going to come all the way to Maine when you can stop in Foxwoods [in Connecticut] and at other places in Massachusetts now, and New Hampshire?” O’Meara said.
O’Meara said he saw some over-arching parallels between the approval of Question 1, which repealed a law that eliminated same-day voter registration, and the defeat of Questions 2 and 3.
Question 1 reflected a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” theme, while 2 and 3 showed a “let’s not rush” mentality, he explained.
“There’s a lot of common sense to Maine voters, and a lot of practicality in the way they vote,” he said.