AUGUSTA – Maine may have a new governor and the first Republican-controlled Legislature in decades, but little has changed when it comes to setting policy on gambling.

It appears that voters, not lawmakers, still make the big decisions.

The Legislature is faced with 13 bills that would amend the state’s gaming laws. It also has to decide the fate of two ballot initiatives that seek to open up new gambling operations in Lewiston, Biddeford and Washington County.

Lawmakers on a key panel say those citizen initiatives make it too difficult to amend the state’s gaming laws or create a comprehensive policy on gambling.

Instead, they said, it seems likely that legislators will put the citizen initiatives on the statewide November ballot, rather than opting to approve them outright, as they could do.

Then, lawmakers say, they plan to wait and see how voters weigh in on the two ballot measures.

“There is no need to rush,” said Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, co-chair of the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which handles all gambling bills. “There seems to be a compelling reason to wait until after November.”

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, a lead Democrat on the committee, agreed, saying it makes sense to push off most of the bills until next year, after the election.

The one exception, he said, is L.D. 677, which would clarify that the 100-mile distance required between gambling facilities under state law be measured in road miles rather than air miles.

The question is critical because Black Bear Entertainment has chosen a site for its casino in Oxford that is 95 miles from Hollywood Slots in Bangor when measured in a straight line, and 125 miles when measured by a car’s odometer.

Scarborough Downs, which wants to build a racino in Biddeford, has urged the state’s Gambling Control Board to measure the 100 miles as a straight line.

The Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on L.D. 677 on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in Room 437 of the State House.

The Legislature needs to clear up the uncertainty over the issue so Black Bear Entertainment can start building its casino in Oxford, Patrick said.

“It’s important to get that out of the way so they can get going on their project,” he said. “Once people vote on the other two referenda, we can handle it from there.”

Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who has submitted a bill that would establish a competitive bidding process to decide who should build casinos and where, said she is frustrated that the Legislature is once again failing to play a leadership role in creating a comprehensive policy on casino gambling.

Rather than state officials setting the rules so all Mainers can benefit, she said, casino investors are taking the lead by funding petition drives for ballot questions that are written for their own financial benefit.

She said the current “willy-nilly” approach has led to regional divisions as communities jockey either to build their own casinos or to defeat others that are seen as threats to their market share.

“The Legislature has to have the courage to make the tough decisions,” she said. “That’s why we were put into office, not to abdicate our decisions.”

The state Constitution limits what the Legislature can do when a group has successfully gathered the required signatures to put a question on the state ballot, said Dennis Bailey of Casinos No!.

The Legislature can either adopt a citizen inititiative as law or put it on the ballot. It could also put its own competing measures on the ballot.

Moreover, when there are two citizen initiatives on a similar issue, the Legislature might be required to put two competing measures on the ballot, raising questions about what would happen if one competing measure passed and the other failed, Bailey said.

“Citizen petitions complicate things,” Bailey said.

He said the Legislature should adopt the two citizen initiatives, but then vote to kill them.

The groups that have filed the initiatives want the Legislature to approve them outright rather than put them on the state ballot.

The groups are Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC, which proposes to establish a casino in building No. 5 of the Bates Mill Complex in Lewiston, and Biddeford Downs, a partnership between Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties Ltd., which plans to build a racetrack with slot machines in Biddeford.

In addition, the Biddeford Downs initiative would allow a racetrack with slot machines to be established in Washington County.

The projects in both Biddeford and Lewiston were already approved by local voters.

Both projects, however, would cut into the revenue of the planned casino in Oxford because they are closer to population centers, Bailey said.

Meanwhile, Peter Martin, a lobbyist for Black Bear Entertainment, has been urging lawmakers to send the initiatives to voters rather than pass them into law.

“The people of Maine should vote on these projects as they have in the past,” Martin said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

[email protected]