In Maine, all big decisions about gambling operations — who gets to build them, where they are built and who benefits from the proceeds — are left to voters.

It has been that way since voters opened the door to legal gambling eight years ago by approving slot machines at a racetrack in Bangor.

It was that way last year when voters approved a casino in Oxford, and it will be that way on Nov. 8 when voters decide whether to allow new gaming facilities in Biddeford, Lewiston and Calais.

In June, as Gov. Paul LePage explained his vetoes of two gambling bills — both of which were products of citizens’ initiatives — he said, “If you want a casino in Maine, you’ve got to do what Oxford did, you’ve got to do what the racino (in Bangor) did, you go to the people and get permission.”

Statewide voting on gambling proposals has become routine in Maine, but it is far outside the norm nationally. In fact, Maine’s approach is unique, said Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

As a result, Maine’s gambling landscape has become a free-for-all in which gaming interests and communities compete for market share and public support, Barrow said, and there’s no sign of it ever stopping.

“Maine is really at risk of spinning out of control if they keep this up,” he said.

ELSEWHERE, LAWMAKERS ESTABLISH FRAMEWORK

In other states, legislators make the rules, taking a comprehensive approach to gambling and thus maximizing the benefit to the state and reducing the risk to the public, Barrow said.

Thirty-five states now have casinos or other forms of gambling such as slot machines.

Even in states that give voters the final say, such as Maryland, lawmakers first establish ground rules, such as requiring competitive bidding, setting tax rates and establishing locations for casinos, Barrow said.

States typically create plans that foster construction of resort casinos large enough to draw people from other states, he said.

The Massachusetts Legislature is doing just that. It is poised to pass a 155-page bill that was put together behind closed doors by legislative leaders and Gov. Deval Patrick.

The bill, modeled after New Jersey laws, would create a casino monopoly in each of three zones — western, eastern and southeastern. It also would allow one slots-only parlor.

The right to build and run each casino would be put out for bids. A casino developer would pay a $400,000 application fee and at least $85 million for a license, and invest at least $500 million to build a resort casino. Any developer who failed to follow through on the plan would forfeit the $85 million.

The bill would also raise about $25 million annually from casino properties to fund social service and public health programs that fight problem gambling, such as Gamblers Anonymous.

In contrast, Black Bear Entertainment, the developer of the casino in Oxford, paid a $225,000 application fee, and will pay $80,000 a year for its license after its first year in business.

The company is building a 65,000-square-foot facility off Route 26. During the campaign last year that led to the casino’s approval, the company said it would build a 100,000-square-foot casino and resort in phases over five years. It will not be penalized if it fails to build all of the phases.

Proposals on the Nov. 8 ballot for gambling facilities in Lewiston and Biddeford threaten the viability of the casino in Oxford, which is farther from Maine’s population centers, said Sebastian Sinclair, president of Christiansen Capital Advisors, a New Gloucester-based management consultant firm whose clients include gaming operators.

Because Maine has failed to create a framework for regional monopolies, it cannot attract the kind of investment and revenue streams that other states can, Sinclair said.

He said Massachusetts is following the examples of other states, such as Pennsylvania and Kansas, which have created plans based on market analysis, their priorities and the extent to which they’re comfortable with gambling.

“That leads to a better outcome than someone gathering 80,000 signatures and throwing something on the ballot and seeing if that floats,” Sinclair said.

IN MAINE, DEVELOPERS DECIDE

Under Massachusetts’ law, 25 percent of the gross revenue from the casinos would go to the state’s cities and towns.

In Maine, developers who propose legislation spell out how much they would pay for gambling licenses and which groups would benefit from the revenue. To generate support from voters, they have included an array of groups, principally the harness racing industry and agricultural fairs, but also public universities and community colleges, public schools and the dairy industry.

Many lawmakers would like to see the revenue go to programs that have greater funding needs, said Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who for years has been a lone voice in Augusta arguing that the Legislature must create a comprehensive plan for gambling.

In Maine, she said, casino developers have dictated the terms of the deal. Once the deal is approved by voters, many lawmakers believe that they can’t change the terms.

“We should be telling casino proponents what to do, not them telling us,” she said. “It has been backwards.”

Because Maine has failed to create a plan for gambling, it will likely end up with something that other states have tried to avoid: operations that make their profits from the gambling losses of local people, said Barrow, of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

SUPPORTERS HAVE ONE OPTION

There are reasons for Maine’s referendum-driven approach to gambling.

The last two governors, Angus King and John Baldacci, strongly opposed legalized gambling and would not have signed any bill that allowed it in Maine. Also, the public and the Legislature have been divided on the issue, making it difficult to build consensus.

So supporters of gambling have been left with one option: Maine’s citizens’ initiative process.

It’s easier — and less expensive — to put a question on the ballot in Maine than it is in most other states.

Another important difference between this and other states is the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which left Maine tribes without the same rights to gambling on tribal lands that tribes have in other states. In other states, gambling was inevitable so it made sense to lay the legal groundwork.

“The reason we are in this one-at-a-time situation is that the referendum process was the only way Indians or anyone else could get the rights to build casinos in Maine,” said King, who was governor from 1995 to 2003.

In hindsight, the groups that have opposed casinos, including Maine’s business establishment, may have made a mistake by working to keep casinos out of Maine, rather than finding a way to better regulate and contain them, said Dennis Bailey of Casinos NO!, which has led the opposition to casinos.

“If we had known that (gambling interests) would keep coming back and back and back, we could have done more to control it,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected]