AUGUSTA — Regional rivalries and concerns about a major statewide expansion of gambling doomed two ballot questions even though they promised new jobs in a tough economy, political analysts said Wednesday.
The clear rejection of Questions 2 and 3 on Tuesday has also led to a renewed call for Maine to take a comprehensive approach to considering future gaming proposals.
Voters rejected Question 2, which would have allowed new harness racing tracks with slot machines in Biddeford and Washington County, by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. They defeated Question 3, a proposal for a downtown casino in Lewiston, 63 percent to 37 percent.
If approved, the proposals would have expanded the number of gambling facilities in the state from two to five.
“I thought the jobs argument was going to push this over the top,” said David Findlay, an economics professor at Colby College.
But he said voters likely didn’t want Maine to build too many casinos, given that New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island would all compete for the same customers.
“There’s only so many casino dollars floating around and voters don’t view these as a sustainable way to promote economic development,” he said.
Advertising funded largely by competing gambling facilities in Bangor and Oxford argued that the state could not support five gambling venues. That argument was bolstered last week when Gov. Paul LePage said at a Colby College forum that he, too, did not think Maine’s population of 1.3 million could support five facilities.
Voters living near existing or proposed gambling facilities didn’t want the competition, an analysis of the results suggests.
Voters in Androscoggin, Oxford and Penobscot counties all voted strongly against Question 2. Androscoggin County is home to Lewiston, where proponents had hoped to get a casino.
A casino is under construction and scheduled to open next year in Oxford County, and Penobscot County is home to Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which received local approval Tuesday to include table games as well as slots.
Question 2 was rejected by Bangor voters 5,390 to 2,160, while voters in Oxford rejected it 1,055 to 226.
Statewide, Question 2 was voted down in 12 counties, and approved in only Kennebec, Somerset, Washington and York counties. The vote in York, where Biddeford is located, was surprisingly close, 29,748 to 27,722.
Question 3 lost in all 16 counties, with voters in Oxford, Penobscot, Washington and York all strongly opposed. In Bangor, the question failed 5,890 to 1,654 and in Oxford, the vote was 1,129 to 154.
Argument against a substantial increase in gambling facilities, and whether the state could support it, likely convinced voters to reject the proposals, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. He talked about the “reasonableness” of Maine voters, which he believes also led to the passage of Question 1, which restored same-day voter registration.
“The outcome on Questions 1, 2, and 3 can be explained by this certain inherent level of reasonableness that Maine voters have,” he said. “I think a lot of people were thinking along the same lines as Gov. LePage.”
Another factor, said University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt, was voter fatigue. Mainers have voted eight times in 11 years on gambling questions, approving facilities in Bangor and Oxford, and rejecting the rest.
“It feels like this has been an issue that’s been going on for years,” he said.
Patrick Murphy, president of the polling firm Pan Atlantic SMS, said the questions were defeated by wider-than-expected margins because it was an off-year election. His firm did not do any polling on the gambling questions this election.
He expects developers to be back with more proposals, particularly if the Oxford casino proves successful.
“I suppose if the one in Oxford starts to make some money, these other guys will come back and say let’s have a go,” he said.
When the Legislature reconvenes for its second session in January, lawmakers will have the chance to revisit two bills that would institute a comprehensive approach to approving new gambling facilities. One bill, sponsored by Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, would authorize three additional casinos in Maine, subject to competitive bidding.
It would set fees for casino operators and designate how the state’s share of gaming revenue would be apportioned, dividing it among local education, veterans’ property tax exemptions and property tax breaks for homeowners. Recently, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill allowing three casinos and one slots parlor in the state and designating where they can be located.
In a written statement, Valentino said she spoke with people on both sides of the issue Wednesday morning and they are ready to sit down and work on legislation. “It is time for Maine to set the rules and conditions for any future gambling expansion, not the individual developers,” she said.
Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Chairwoman Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, said she’s heard from several people who want lawmakers to tackle the issue. She said the committee will consider Valentino’s bill and one submitted by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, that also seeks to establish gambling-facility guidelines. Raye supports allowing a racino in Washington County and pleaded with fellow lawmakers earlier this year to approve the proposal without sending it out to voters.
“I think it’s been a real failure that the Legislature and a succession of governors have punted on the issue of gaming and left it to lurch along from referendum to referendum, as opposed to having some kind of comprehensive state policy,” Raye said Wednesday.
In the past, lawmakers have delayed action on these types of bills because there have been pending citizen initiatives on gambling. Now, the decks are clear. “I think this is the time,” Farnham said.
Brewer, the University of Maine professor, agreed, especially since at least one prominent Lewiston casino supporter, former legislator Stavros Mendros, says he wants the proposal back on the ballot in 2013. “The way Maine has done this is really about as poorly done as it could possibly be,” Brewer said. “It’s been a mess.”
But Schmidt, the University of Southern Maine professor, and Murphy, the Portland pollster, aren’t so sure lawmakers will follow through with a comprehensive approach.
“Resolving this issue isn’t going to equate with general political benefit,” Schmidt said. “I’d be surprised if this jumped to the top of the list.”
Murphy said he doesn’t think lawmakers have the “stomach” to get into such a controversial issue. “I personally don’t think they want to deal with it,” he said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]