AUGUSTA – The biggest proponent of a bill to require comprehensive planning for future casinos and racinos has backed away from the proposal, saying last-minute lobbying efforts spoiled the measure.

For years, Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, has argued that Maine should be more like Massachusetts when it comes to gaming. That’s because the Bay State has dictated where new facilities are to be located, made sure the state gets a healthy cut, and created an oversight board to ensure that potential developers will build high-quality facilities.

Last week, it seemed as though Maine would finally take a step in that direction by passing L.D. 1897. The bill prohibits the state from accepting new applications for casinos or racinos after September of this year to give a task force time to study the issue. It requires future projects to pay a $250,000 nonrefundable privilege fee and a minimum license fee of $5 million.

Valentino spoke in favor of the bill when it first came to the House, but by the end of the week, she said lobbyists left it a shadow of its former self.

“Due to intense pressure over the last two days from lobbyists and special interests, the bill has been watered down and a loophole was created,” she wrote. “I would not have supported the bill if I had known how the final version would end up. People keep referring to it as my bill. … it is not my bill.”

The loophole Valentino is referring to is an exemption granted to the Passamaquoddy Tribe that allows them to come back next year with a proposal to add slots to their high-stakes bingo facility in Calais. The original bill put a moratorium on all new gambling proposals until the task force had time to examine the effects of the casino in Bangor and the one in Oxford that’s scheduled to open this summer.

The bill also was amended to add even more people to an already big 18-member task force. The group will now include a representative of agricultural fairs and one from the hospitality industry. The amendment also allows the $5 million fee to be lowered “based on geography or demographics of the location” of the facility.

The bill is pending final action in the Senate after being placed on the special study table.

GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, challenged opponents of his mining bill to examine his environmental record if they fear updated mining regulations will ruin lakes near Bald Mountain, the site of a proposed new gold mine in Aroostook County.

Martin said he owns sporting camps on a lake that’s just six-and-a-half miles from where the mine would be located.

“For people who believe I don’t have an interest in the environment, protecting my own backyard is my No. 1 concern,” he said. “I would be happy to put up my environmental record against anyone. My environmental record is there for people to see, read and understand.”

Martin argued that Aroostook County has lost people, potatoes and forestry jobs, so something must be done to help bring jobs to the region.

The bill, L.D. 1853, passed the House 78-65 and the Senate 22-13. It gives the Department of Environmental Protection two years to write mining rules that would allow new mines in the state. Expect big future fights over the rules, which will come back to lawmakers for review in January 2014.

FUNNY MAN

Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, provided some comic relief on the last day of the session with his annual monologue that pokes fun at fellow House members.

A few examples:

“We no longer read and transcribe our history, we just leave it to Lance Harvell,” a reference to the Farmington Republican’s penchant for making historical references during his floor speeches.

While talking about term limits, he said: “Democrats lose George Hogan, Republicans lose Steve Hanley.” That drew laughs because Hanley is a Democrat, although he frequently votes with Republicans.

“I would like to say how much I enjoyed Seth Berry singing the national anthem, because, for once, you knew when he was going to finish.”

And he said perhaps floor speeches should be governed by a shot clock like the ones that are used in high school basketball.

“If Sharon Treat speaks more than 24 seconds, a horn goes off and the other side gets the ball.”

 

OPEN SEASON

Our political reporters are all contributing to a new blog on our websites called Open Season. Check in with us frequently to get the latest on what’s happening in Maine politics.

For the foreseeable future, Open Season will replace the Monday politics notebook.

State House Writer Susan Cover contributed to this column.