AUGUSTA — Proponents of new gambling operations want the Legislature to approve proposals for Lewiston, Biddeford and Calais. Their opponents say Maine voters should get the final say about any expansion of gambling in the state.

The two sides made their arguments Monday during public hearings before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

The day-long hearings were prompted by two separate citizen initiative petitions.

Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC proposes to operate a casino in building No. 5 of the Bates Mill Complex in Lewiston.

Biddeford Downs, a partnership between Scarborough Downs and Ocean Properties Ltd., wants to build a racetrack with slot machines and a resort hotel in Biddeford. The Biddeford Downs initiative also would allow a racetrack with slot machines in Washington County.

Groups backing both ventures gathered the required 157,277 signatures to qualify for November’s statewide ballot. As a result, the two petition efforts are now two bills: L.D. 985, which would allow a slot machine facility in Lewiston, and L.D. 1203, which would allow a racino in Biddeford and a racino run by Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe in Washington County.

The Maine Constitution gives the Legislature just two options: adopt the bills as law or put them on the November ballot.

Investors, residents and officials from the three communities spoke passionately Monday about how gaming operations would help them address poverty and joblessness in their regions.

Joanne Twomey, the mayor of Biddeford, said her city has lost hundreds of textile manufacturing jobs, and that people are asking her to help them find work.

“It offers hope – hope by way of jobs,” she said of the proposed racino in the city.

Joseph Socobasin, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, noted that the impetus for gaming in Maine began with his tribe in the early 1990s.

He said Maine tribes are the only federally recognized tribes in the nation that do not have gaming rights. “If any place deserves to have the opportunity for gaming, it’s Washington County,” he said.

Stavros Mendros, manager for Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment, said that putting the issue on the ballot would lead to an expensive campaign and hobble Lewiston’s efforts to negotiate a development deal. If the Legislature would simply enact L.D. 985, he suggested, his group could use the savings to give the state a $1 million licensing fee.

Mendros said the planned casino in Oxford – which voters narrowly approved last November – will draw money out of Lewiston and hinder the city’s redevelopment efforts. He said Lewiston wants its own gaming facility to protect itself economically from the Oxford casino.

Montana has 17 casinos, he said, and there is no reason why Maine can’t have five.

Chris O’Neil, speaking for Mainers Against A Rotten Deal, a new group that formed to oppose the Biddeford racino, said Mainers have a “sovereign right” to vote on what would be a massive expansion of gambling in Maine.

“All we are asking is that you put this out to a vote,” he said.

After the hearings, several members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee said they are leaning toward putting both initiatives on the ballot. They said most of the email they have received on the issue has been in favor of putting the measures before voters.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, a committee member, said the two proposals would create a “seismic shift” in gambling in Maine. “The responsible thing to do here is let the voters decide,” she said.

Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, who spent a portion of the hearings flipping through a book of Maine statutes, said the issue is complicated by Maine Supreme Judicial Court rulings that prohibit the Legislature from changing bills created by citizen initiatives.

He said the rulings also prohibit the Legislature from passing one of the bills into law while putting the other on the ballot, because that could produce laws that conflict with each other.

Despite Monday’s compelling testimony, Crockett said, the Legislature appears to have little choice but to send the issues to voters. “It needs to go to the public,” he said.

The committee plans to hold a workshop on the two bills May 6.

Also Monday, Gov. Paul LePage signed L.D. 677, which clarifies a law requiring at least 100 miles between gambling operations in Maine. The clarification states that it is measured by road miles, not 100 miles in a straight line.

The law prevents a distance conflict between the casino in Oxford and Hollywood Slots in Bangor. Biddeford’s proposal calls for that facility to be exempt from the 100-mile law.

 

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