AUGUSTA, Maine — State Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said he’s throwing in the towel on a special legislative commission that was meant to examine the economic effect of gambling in Maine and New England.
The panel, created by a state law passed earlier this year, included nonelected representatives of those with vested interests in gambling, including Maine’s American Indian tribes and the two casinos already operating in the state. Also on the commission were representatives for Maine’s harness racing industry and four state lawmakers.
Patrick, the chairman of the panel, says the commission’s work was “sidelined” when a majority of its members shifted the focus from a close inspection on what casino gambling has meant for Maine and what its future would look like as other New England states look to add to gambling facilities to a focus on how to expand gambling in the Pine Tree State.
“No experts were called to testify. No data was collected. No research was discussed,” Patrick wrote in a guest opinion column for the Sun Journal. “It was a simple power grab on the part of a few self-serving individuals who were willing to undermine an entire process for their own personal gain.”
The main focus of the law setting up the commission, LD 1897, was to develop a competitive bidding process for any gambling expansion going forward.
So far, Maine’s two casinos have been approved by statewide referendum.
According to Patrick, the panel was established to:
• Examine the effect of existing casinos on state and local economies and any other legal gambling conducted in Maine.
• Examine the effect of the establishment of casinos in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and the Canadian provinces bordering Maine.
• Gather information to determine the potential market for gambling opportunities in Maine.
• Consider the feasibility of licensing expanded gambling activities by groups who are already eligible to operate games of chance, beano, high-stakes beano, harness racing and off-track betting.
“While there were a number of issues we agreed to take on,” Patrick wrote, “the primary task was to review the research, hear expert opinion and gather information about the question of expanding gaming, and what kind of impact expansion would have on our state and on the existing gaming venues.”
Patrick, who also serves on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has oversight of gambling in the state, said he will continue to pursue the commission’s original task as a member of that committee when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
“That’s the good news,” Patrick wrote. “The gaming industry in Maine, whether you approve of gambling or not, is now an important revenue stream, employing nearly 1,000 Mainers. It’s important that we get it right.”
Dennis Bailey, a longtime casino opponent and public relations expert, also served on the 20-member panel.
In an email message Tuesday, Bailey said he agreed with Patrick’s view and decision to fold the commission.
“The commission could have fostered a much needed policy discussion of gambling casinos in Maine and their impact,” Bailey wrote. “Instead, Scarborough Downs and its allies rushed through a wide-scale proposal that essentially would put a casino on every street corner in Maine. Once the process was hijacked, there was really nothing left for the commission to do.”
Bailey said he believed Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature would ignore the commission’s work and instead form a new independent panel to complete the original objectives of LD 1897.
According to minutes from the commission’s Sept. 27 meeting, Peter Connell, a representative for Ocean Properties and the hospitality industry, made a motion to make a seven-point recommendation to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that included allowing four more entities to apply for casino licenses.
Connell’s motion included a resort racino with table games for southern Maine, slot machines and table games for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseets. The motion also would have allowed nonprofit veterans organizations to apply for licenses to operate slot machines.
The motion, seconded by Rep. Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot Nation’s representative to the Legislature, passed on an 8-10 vote despite warnings that the motion did not encompass the commission’s stated task in statute.
According to the minutes, several members felt the motion was premature but others felt the commission had only been established to protect the interests of Maine’s already existing casinos in Oxford and Bangor for the next four to five years.
Under the law that set up the commission, it was allowed to hold up to six meetings but held only four.
Connell, who was on the panel because his company previously supported the creation of a southern Maine casino in Biddeford, said Tuesday he was disappointed with Patrick’s characterization of how things transpired with the commission.
“With all due respect, when the majority of the people on the committee wanted to move forward that really doesn’t rise to the level of hijacking,” Connell said. “The majority wanted to continue the meetings.”
Connell also said that Mitchell made a motion at the fourth meeting to continue the meetings and to move forward with a report but that did not transpire.
“So the idea that the majority [of the commission] had anything to do with the commission ceasing was completely wrong,” Connell said.
He also said Patrick’s assertion that there wasn’t any data collected and that people were not heard from was also incorrect.
Mitchell said Tuesday he believed if there was any blame to be placed for the commission’s failure it rested squarely on the shoulders of Patrick and the commission’s co-chairman, Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth.
Mitchell said the seven-point plan put forward by Connell was meant to be an outline for discussion points, not recommendations for the Legislature.
“It was a plan and not power grab as [Patrick] said,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he voted for Connell’s motion because it was the first actual step forward in moving the commission toward its assigned mission.
Mitchell said he was in the hospital for the first two meetings of the commission but followed it online and determined they had done relatively little work.
“Nothing had been done at all prior,” Mitchell said. “There was absolutely nothing done. It’s unfortunate. Not only unfortunate for the interests that were represented there but unfortunate for the people of Maine. I think Sen. Patrick’s statements are way off base.”
Mitchell and Connell seemed to agree the way forward would be — as Patrick suggested — to address the issue in a series of bills that were carried over for consideration in 2014 by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.