Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, (left) and Ken Huhn talk outside the Cross Insurance Center as voters entered for the primary election on July 14, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A heavily lobbied bill that would put Maine among 30 others to legalize sports betting but tie it to existing casinos and off-track parlors was initially approved in both chambers of the Legislature on Thursday.

It came out of another push from Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the co-chair of the Legislature’s gambling committee, to pass a sports betting bill after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 allowed states to regulate the new market. Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill last year that Luchini championed, saying she was unconvinced that Mainers wanted to expand gambling.

The Democratic governor then sidestepped the main issue — whether betting should be “tethered” to existing brick-and-mortar gaming operations or not — in legislative debate on the measure since 2019. A parochial dispute on that subject was the key factor in splitting members of the gambling committee into supporting three different versions of the sports betting bill.

The Senate voted 23-12 to back a version that takes the opposite approach of the bill vetoed by Mills last year. The House followed later. It would make mobile and online bettors — such as DraftKings — establish relationships with casinos in Bangor and Oxford or six off-track betting locations to participate in the market. The measure still faces further action in both chambers.

“I hope we can all agree that if we’re going to open up the state to accept wagers on sports, we need to do it in the most responsible way possible and the one that protects Maine people and Maine businesses as much as possible,” said Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor.

Supporters of that approach included the off-track betting parlors and Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood Casino in Bangor. They have noted that virtually all states with physical gaming establishments have elected to tether betting to them. New Hampshire, which does not have physical establishments, picked DraftKings to run a monopoly system there.

Luchini has been the most vocal opponent of tethering in the Legislature. On the Senate floor, he noted that the state does not force other businesses operating here to abide by similar arrangements. He backed a version of the bill similar to the one vetoed last year, but he said he worked with the Mills administration in a bid to ensure that she would approve of it.

“The tethering arrangement and the fees charged to online providers ultimately amounts to a subsidy for the current gaming industry players and is paid for by our constituents,” he said.

Under the proposal backed by the Senate on Thursday, a physical facility would be taxed at 10 percent of gross sports betting receipts, while mobile licensees would be taxed at 16 percent, the same as Luchini’s original bill. 

Others on the gambling committee backed yet another version of the bill, while Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, opposed the expansion altogether.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...