February 23, 2020
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Expansion of gambling proposed

AUGUSTA, Maine — Slot machines would be allowed at Scarborough Downs and at new racetrack casinos in Oxford and Washington counties under a sweeping expansion of gambling introduced Tuesday.

“What we want to do is get the groups together that are interested and as a coalition, move the bill forward,” said Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield, sponsor of the measure. “I think when you put it all into one package, it is a more powerful bill.”

All of the provisions in Bryant’s bill already are before lawmakers as separate bills and with some variations on size and how the revenue from the gambling would be allocated.

Bryant said his measure, as drafted, would allow for new racetracks in Oxford and Washington counties and would allow the state Gambling Control Board to license up to 3,500 slot machines, with no more than 1,500 at any facility. The Hollywood Slots facility in Bangor is the only racino in the state and is licensed to have 1,500 machines.

“This is an opportunity for the state to have revenue, and it desperately needs it,” he said. “This would provide revenue for agriculture, provide money for horsemen, for the agricultural fairs and it does bring in revenue to the state.”

The measure also authorizes the issuance of a high-stakes beano game license to a “federally recognized tribe” on nontribal land in Washington County.

But the measure, as drafted, does not send the bill to a statewide referendum, although it does require a local vote in the community where a racino may be located.

Gov. John Baldacci has vetoed measures in the past that would have expanded gambling without a referendum.

“It cannot be done through the Legislature, it has to be done by a vote of the public,” the governor said recently in an interview. “I don’t see this as economic development. I don’t see it as something the people will gravitate to. But whatever the people of Maine decide, that is their decision to make.”

Baldacci said he will oppose any bill without a referendum provision. He said anyone who believes there will be a rush of investors for Maine gambling facilities should look at news reports of the layoffs and cutbacks and casinos across the country.

Bryant said the measure could be changed in committee to add a referendum clause, but that supporters will “cross that bridge when we have to” because he believes the measure will have strong legislative support.

Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, has opposed some gambling proposals and supported others. She is on the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs committee that will consider the measure. Plowman said she is open to the proposal, but will have to be convinced there is enough business to support such a large expansion of gambling in the state.

“Senator Bryant has proposed a trifecta and we will have to see if his horse comes in,” she said.

Lawmakers nearly overrode Gov. Baldacci’s veto of the Washington County racino proposed by the Passamaquoddy Tribe in 2005. Plowman said it is possible Bryant can gain additional support with his inclusive approach. But she also said such a broad measure will generate opposition.

Dennis Bailey, executive director of CasinosNo!, blasted the proposal. He said the sponsors need “hearing aids” because they have not heard the clear message that the voters have rejected any expansion of gambling beyond the law allowing Hollywood Slots that was designed to help commercial racetracks.

“How many times do we have to help them out? And have the racetracks really been helped? Are more people attending harness racing than before? Actually, no, the statewide handle continues to drop,” Bailey said. “Maybe it’s time for legislators to focus on creating real jobs rather than welfare for the harness racing industry.”

He also called one provision that allows the slot machines to be located up to 50 miles from the racetrack instead of the current five-mile limit “outrageous.”

The proposal would divide the millions of dollars in expected revenues among the state, the host community and several specific purposes. Harness racing purses, agricultural fairs, the Fund for a Healthy Maine, scholarship programs at the university system and the community colleges and animal welfare programs would benefit from the revenues generated at the slot facilities.

The public hearing for the measure has yet to be scheduled.

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