February 24, 2020
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Tribes press for gambling rights

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard hours of testimony Monday on a slew of slots-related bills, including the latest attempts by Passamaquoddy tribal members and Oxford County residents to bring gambling to their regions.

A representative of Hollywood Slots, meanwhile, asked the committee to tweak Maine’s tax law to enable the company to use “promotional credits” to draw more players to the Bangor racino.

This was not the first time the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee had heard many of the gambling-related measures.

The committee and the full Legislature previously passed a bill that would have allowed the Passamaquoddy Tribe to open a slots facility and racetrack in Washington County. Gov. John Baldacci’s subsequent veto of the measure sent the issue to voters, who rejected the proposal in November 2007.

This year, Passamaquoddy Tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah has introduced legislation, LD 1379, to allow the operation of up to 100 slot machines only on the days when the tribe offers high-stakes beano.

The bill also specifies that a percentage of the revenue from slots will go toward nontribal programs including college scholarships, the Bureau of Maine Veterans’ Services, the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor and gambling addiction services.

Soctomah said unemployment among the Passamaquoddy people is high and getting higher even as they watch tribes in other states and Hollywood Slots open slots facilities in the name of economic development.

“We have to keep trying because our backs are against the wall,” Soctomah said after the public hearing.

Robert Welch, executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Board, told committee members that the Baldacci administration opposes any expansion of gambling in Maine unless approved by voters in a statewide referendum.

Members of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, meanwhile, are seeking the legal right to hold high-stakes bingo and beano games. The Maliseets are blocked from offering high-stakes gaming due to an antiquated definition of “Indian territory” in Maine law, bill supporters said.

“We are not requesting anything today that is not already being done elsewhere in the state of Maine by other tribes,” Linda Raymond, an elected tribal representative, said while testifying in support of LD 526.

Oxford County officials were also back before the committee less than six months after voters statewide rejected a proposal for a resort with slot machines and gaming tables. Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said the bill’s architects have changed many of the most controversial aspects of last year’s ballot measure.

For instance, they removed references to a specific company that would run the resort and deleted requirements that a company representative serve on the boards of organizations receiving gambling proceeds, such as the University of Maine System’s board.

But committee members pointed out that the bill, as written, would still put a 10-year moratorium on new gaming facilities after approval of the Oxford project. Millett said he was willing to work with the committee to resolve those concerns.

Welch with the Gambling Control Board reiterated the administration’s opposition to expanded gambling unless approved by voters. Welch also said that the Oxford facility would require the creation of nine new positions with the Department of Public Safety to license and monitor the casino, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The state’s sole operator of a gambling facility, Hollywood Slots, also appeared before the committee seeking clarification on a tax issue that affects marketing.

Hollywood Slots can offer patrons “promotional credits,” which are noncash credits that can be used in slot machines. But Jon Johnson, general manager at Hollywood Slots, said the company does not offer promotional credits because Maine’s rules are unclear on whether those credits are considered taxable income.

LD 924, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Perry, D-Bangor, would clarify that promotional credits are not considered income and are therefore not to subject those tax provisions. Johnson said promotional credits are an effective marketing tool that customers want.

“In our opinion, it’s not fair to tax us on our own money,” Johnson said. “And there is precedent for this.”

Welch spoke neither for nor against the bill.

Other than the Baldacci administration, there was little opposition to most of the measures discussed Monday. There was no organized opposition from such groups as Casinos NO! which has led the campaigns against the ballot measures.

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