It’s a common nightmare: You’re about to take a test and, as you sit down and scan the first question, you get a sick feeling deep in the pit of your stomach. Why?

Because you haven’t studied, that’s why. Nor have you done your homework. And now that the moment of truth is here, you know there’s no way this thing is going to end well.

Which brings us to Questions 2 and 3 on next month’s statewide ballot — the former authorizing racinos in Biddeford and Washington County, the latter a casino in Lewiston.

“I think until a couple of weeks ago, people weren’t even aware that these things were on the ballot,” MaryEllen FitzGerald, owner of the Portland polling firm Critical Insights, said last week.

FitzGerald’s pollsters are out there this weekend probing, among other things, Mainers’ feelings about casinos as we prepare to vote on them for the sixth time in 12 years. But already, one thing is painfully clear:

We look like a bunch of suckers.

How so?

Well for starters, because many of us (including yours truly) thought for years that the best policy when it comes to casino gambling in Maine is a “Do Not Enter” sign.

Keep out the slot machines and the gaming tables, the conventional wisdom went, and we’ll avoid the pitfalls of a money-sucking industry that masquerades so seductively as bona fide economic development.

It worked in 2000, when “video lottery” machines at “certain racetracks” went down in a landslide 60 percent-to-40 percent vote.

It worked again in 2003, 2007 and 2008 — when Maine voters turned thumbs down on three other gambling proposals.

But alas, it didn’t work when Hollywood Slots got the green light in another referendum in 2003. And it didn’t work again last year, when the Oxford casino prevailed by a razor-thin 4,723 votes out of some 565,000 cast.

Now here we are again, with three more proposed gaming facilities looming on the statewide ballot and more than a few observers predicting that two of them — the joined-at-the-hip racinos in Biddeford and Washington County — stand a decent chance of passing.

Meaning Maine, if it hasn’t already, is about to flat-out flunk this gambling test now facing states all over the country: If you can’t prohibit gaming facilities inside your borders — and in this job-starved economy, it appears few can — how might you at least turn them to your best possible advantage?

Unlike Maine, the good folks down in Massachusetts appear to be acing that one.

This week, the Massachusetts Senate will resume debate on a hefty bill (already passed overwhelmingly by the House) to authorize three regionally distinct casinos and one slot facility — the first time any such things have ever been allowed in the Bay State.

The license for each facility will be put out to bid. And if you haven’t already seen the dollar signs, fellow Mainers, you might want to brace yourselves.

The minimum opening bid for each of the three Massachusetts casinos would be $85 million. That’s right, the minimum.

The slot-license bidding, meanwhile, would start at $25 million.

And oh yes, to even enter the Massachusetts bidding, an applicant must ante up a nonrefundable check for $400,000.

So how does Maine stack up against the high-stakes action to our south?

Well, Black Bear Entertainment’s license for its soon-to-open casino in Oxford cost … a whopping … $225,000!

And Hollywood Slots in Bangor got its racino license for … let’s see here … $200,000!

Next question: How might a state ensure that gambling developers actually do what they promise they’ll do?

Massachusetts is nailing that one, too: Under its bill, casino licensees must pour at least $500 million in capital investment (including at least one hotel) into their facilities. If they don’t, they’re out of business and can kiss that $85 million license fee goodbye.

And here in Maine?

Well, we trust them: If they say they’ll complete their multiphase Shangri-la in, say, five years, who are we to demand a little money-where-your-mouth-is proof that it will actually happen?

It’s too late, of course, for Maine to start over. Hollywood Slots and the Oxford casino are done deals — and in gambling, the house rules tend to frown upon do-overs.

But with the next wave of “everybody wins” ballot questions now bearing down on us, we might do well to consider the advice of Chris O’Neil, head of the newly formed Mainers Against a Rotten Deal: Before we welcome in two or three more gambling facilities with open arms, why not push away from the table long enough to figure out how this game is supposed to be played?

“If we’re going to have these things, let’s not sell out, let’s not give it away,” O’Neil, a former state representative from Saco, said Friday. With a nod toward Massachusetts, he added, “If (the high-rolling casino developers) are willing to pay, why aren’t we willing to accept it?”

Some now say the anti-gambling policies of former Govs. John Baldacci and Angus King are to blame for Maine’s sucker status. By threatening to veto any gambling legislation, after all, they left the developers to write their own laws and push them through Maine’s low-threshhold citizen initiative process.

Others might blame Maine lawmakers who, unlike their counterparts in Massachusetts, took a pass on shaping a comprehensive gambling policy and instead hot-potatoed one “can’t lose” proposal after another to the voters.

(Worse yet, the Legislature also killed a bill last spring, sponsored by Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, that would have created a gambling framework in Maine much like the one taking shape in Massachusetts.)

But if you really want to know how Maine got into this mess, consider this read-’em-and-weep answer from Patrick Fleming, executive director of Maine’s Gambling Control Board.

“Those things were set by referendum,” Fleming said. “Our licensing fees were set by the citizens.”

Maybe we should study harder this time.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]