Tribes seek inclusion in proposed study exploring feasibility of more Maine casinos

Madonna Soctomah
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Posted April 10, 2014, at 6:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After three bills designed to allow the development of tribal casinos were rejected, representatives of Maine’s Indian tribes in the State House are working to ensure the tribes’ gaming prospects are included in a study of the possibility of expanded casino operations in the state.

The study is proposed as a forward move for lawmakers wary of expanding the state’s gambling portfolio.

That hesitance was at least part of the rationale for killing the three tribal gaming bills, each of which would have allowed one of the state’s three Indian nations — the Houlton Band of Maliseets, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation — to begin or expand gambling operations. All three bills were approved by the House but rejected by the Senate.

Some of the bill’s opponents in the House and Senate cited the planned expansion of casino gaming in other parts of New England, as well as the fact that two casinos already operate in Maine — Oxford Casino and Hollywood Casino in Bangor — as causes for their concern about expanded gaming.

Some lawmakers also said the state needs to change its case-by-case process for approving casinos and develop a statewide plan for how, when and where gaming facilities can open in the state.

After the bills were defeated, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee drafted LD 1856, a resolve to study the feasibility of expanded gaming in the state.

The resolve would charge the state with contracting an “experienced gaming consulting firm” to analyze the potential market for additional casinos.

The contractor would need to report back on whether an expansion market exists, and where; the optimal size for any potential expansion; suggested requirements for capital investment; what impact expanded gaming would have on the two casinos already operating in Bangor and Oxford; and recommended fees and revenue streams for the state from any new casino operation.

The language of the bill, however, contains no mention of the Indian tribes which have fought — in some cases for decades — to bring gaming to its communities. The House of Representatives’ nonvoting tribal members are working on an amendment to specifically include the tribes’ prospects in the study.

“By mentioning the tribes, we ensure our perspective is included,” said Rep. Henry John Bear from the Houlton Band of Maliseets.

Bear, along with Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said they feared that without explicit mention of the tribes, any ideas and plans for casinos made by the tribes would be ignored.

Soctomah said she introduced the first proposal for a Passamaquoddy casino during the 115th Legislature, and the state has been saying it needs more information ever since.

“Since the 115th, they state has said ‘we need a study,’” she said Thursday. “We’re concerned that if the tribes aren’t mentioned explicitly, we’ll be left out.”

Soctomah and Bear are working on an amendment to the bill that would include them in the study and would allow the governor, on behalf of the state, to enter into a state-tribal compact governing the conduct of electronic and table games within the tribes’ territories.

That compact would need to be ratified by the Legislature. Bear said that’s the process established in other states, and one he’d like to see in Maine.

Bear or Soctomah could put forth the amendment themselves in the House, but in the senate, a surrogate is needed to bring the proposal to the floor.

Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, who originally signed off on the amendment, has become hesitant to involve the governor. He said Thursday that the provision is unnecessary because there’s nothing currently blocking the governor from working with tribal leaders or representatives on a bill.

“The governor can already bring a proposal to the legislature, whenever he wants,” Jackson said. “It would be duplicative.”

Jackson said he’d keep working with the tribal representatives in the House to come up with a plan that he’ll bring to the Senate.

“I want to help them out,” he said.

The bill will be considered in the House on Friday or sometime next week.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

 

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