WATERVILLE – Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday he doesn’t think Maine can support five gambling facilities, just days before voters are set to decide the fate of two gambling-related referendum questions.
“I don’t see how the state of Maine can afford five casinos,” he said during a speech at Colby College. “I’m also very, very comfortable in saying five casinos will never be built in Maine. The population can’t support it. One or two, maybe three, at the outside.”
LePage made his comments when asked his position on the gambling measures. Ever since he was a candidate for governor, LePage has consistently said he would support the will of the people when it came to gambling.
On Tuesday, voters will decide on Question 2, which would allow a new race track with slot machines in Biddeford and one in Washington County. Question 3 would allow a casino in Lewiston. If approved, those facilities would join Hollywood Slots in Bangor and a casino currently under construction in Oxford.
LePage said that if both questions passed, he thinks the developers would have to collaborate.
“If they all pass, then what you’re gonna see is the five businesses that are interested will sit down and really fine-tune the numbers,” he said.
Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, who is campaigning for Question 3, said he was “very disappointed” with LePage’s comments. He said they run counter to the governor’s strong faith in the free-enterprise system and his desire to improve the state’s business climate and create jobs.
“I think he put up a sign that said, ‘Open for business.’ Well, this is a business. This will bring economic development and jobs. Let the free market determine how many casinos suffice. Let the free-enterprise system work, and see what happens,” Gilbert said.
He said he suspected that lobbyists from Black Bear Entertainment, which is building a casino in Oxford, are influencing the governor.
“I smell a rat,” he said.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said after the event that the governor is raising questions about whether a state with 1.3 million people can support five gambling facilities.
“It is a fair question,” she said. “Do we have enough people to sustain those jobs if we have five casinos in the state?”
She said in New England, five gambling facilities “would be unprecedented.”
Dennis Bailey of CasinosNo! said the governor is taking a “pragmatic business view” that the market can only support so much gambling in Maine.
“The governor is right,” he said. “There is no way we can have five destination resorts at the scale they are proposing. It’s not in the cards, as they say.”
Bailey said he was surprised by the governor’s comments, because in the past LePage has been reluctant to state a position on gambling proposals other than to say the people should decide.
Also at the Colby event, LePage explained why he opposes Question 1, which would overturn the law eliminating Election Day voter registration. He said he doesn’t believe those who say requiring registrations to take place no later than the Thursday before an election would disenfranchise college students, minorities or the poor.
LePage noted that soldiers overseas must plan 45-60 days before an election to ensure their absentee ballots make it back in time.
“If those people can take 60 days while they are ducking bullets … I think the rest of us at home who are free because of those people could give up that one day on Election Day,” he said.
More than 200 people, many of them college students, packed the Goldfarb Center lecture hall at Colby for the event. LePage staffers, including energy czar Ken Fletcher, a former Republican state lawmaker from Winslow, passed out sheets of paper before the event to allow the audience to submit written questions.
Government professor Sandy Maisel selected and read the questions, which included inquiries about how the governor plans to address an anticipated shortfall in federal funds used to pay for heating oil for the poor.
“I am going to ask the Legislature to take some money out of Efficiency Maine to help with this,” he said.
Efficiency Maine, which is funded through a surcharge on electricity bills, regional greenhouse gas funds and federal money, is a program that offers incentives for businesses and homeowners to reduce energy use. LePage said there are long-term projects that have been funded, but the money for the home heating program is an immediate need.
Also, college students wanted to know what LePage planned to do to keep them in Maine after they graduate. He encouraged them to see what jobs are available, and concentrate their studies in those areas.
He said parents play a role, too.
“What we need to do is keep more of the parents here,” he said. “If you’re really stable in an area, you will get your kids to come back. And when they come back, you can’t get rid of them.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]