AUGUSTA — Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe is making another attempt to bring a combined racetrack and casino to eastern Maine as the state began to study Friday how best to expand gambling.
The tribe has been trying to bring gambling to its land for more than 20 years but has failed to get enough statewide support for its approval. But under a bill the tribe plans to push in January, only Washington County voters would have to approve the plans for the racetrack casino, which the Passamaquoddy say would provide a much-needed economic boost for the area.
“We’ve always seen gaming as a project that could stimulate other businesses and jobs,” said Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddy at Indian Township, one of two Passamaquoddy reservations at the nation’s eastern tip. “I don’t think it will end all of our issues here in Washington County, but it would certainly be a great start for some kind of economic development.”
The tribe’s effort comes as the state has put a hold on all other attempts to expand gambling in Maine so it can come up with guidelines designed to control an explosion of citizen-initiated casino proposals.
The newly formed Gaming Commission — made up of 20 members including lawmakers, representatives from the tribes, and harness horse racing industry — met for the first time Friday.
Their task is to create a framework for a competitive bidding process for future casino and slot machine licenses, said Democratic Sen. John Patrick of Rumford, a co-chairman of the commission. The group will also examine the economic impacts of expanding gambling in Maine and come up with recommendations for legislation by February.
Casino development in Maine has been steered largely by citizen-initiated legislation, which critics say allows prospective developers to essentially write their own proposals and let voters decide their fate. Voters have rejected six casino proposals in 11 years and approved only two. Maine’s only racetrack casino, Hollywood Slots of Bangor, opened in 2005. Five years later, voters approved a casino in Oxford.
When the commission was created, the state decided not to accept any new applications for casinos or racetrack casinos until a competitive bidding process is established. But there’s an exception for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, allowing them to avoid the process altogether and move forward with their bill to bring a racetrack casino to Calais as early as January.
The Passamaquoddy, along with Penobscot, were defeated in 2003 when they proposed a casino in Sanford and again in 2007 and 2011. They introduced their latest proposal during the last session, but agreed to wait to move forward until after the commission meets. Now, they hope to move it through the Legislature when lawmakers return in January and get it on the ballot by November 2014.
Socobasin said he believes now is the tribe’s best chance to finally bring a casino to Washington County.
He said Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said he would sign the bill. The governor’s office would only say Friday that LePage supported the tribe’s effort when it was introduced last session.
If the governor does approve the bill, the referendum would likely succeed in Washington County. Between 60 percent and 70 percent of county voters supported the casino in the 2011 statewide vote, Socobasin said.
Today, nearly 2 million cars drive through Calais every year and they have nothing to stop for, he said.
“This would give them a reason to stop,” he said.