Scarborough Downs could have slot machines at its racetrack without a statewide referendum if a bill under consideration by the Legislature passes.
The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold a work session Wednesday to discuss a group of bills that would expand gambling in Maine without requiring the approval of voters statewide.
Under L.D. 1111, a harness racing track would be able to operate slot machines as long as it had the approval of voters in the municipality where it’s located.
Other bills under consideration would exempt Native American tribes and veterans and fraternal organizations from needing statewide voter approval for gambling.
The harness racing bill would require slot machines to be in a building next to the track with “a prominent view of the racing oval.” It also would expand the number of slot machines allowed in the state from 3,000 to 4,500.
Beneficiaries of the state’s existing casinos in Oxford and Bangor, including nearby business owners, argued at a committee hearing Wednesday that not requiring a statewide vote was unfair and that more consideration needed to be given to whether Maine can sustain more gambling facilities.
The Downs’ attorney, Ed MacColl, said avoiding the influence of that “well-financed opposition” is a reason Scarborough Downs is pursuing changes to the law through the Legislature.
“You can create enough confusion that generates a ‘no’ vote. That’s how it’s gone. History proves it,” he said about campaigns by the competition.
Scarborough Downs has been trying for more than a decade to bring slot machines to its track to bolster the dying harness racing industry.
In 2003, voters statewide approved a measure to allow slot machines at harness racetracks, but, in a simultaneous townwide referendum, 56 percent of Scarborough voters objected to having them at the Downs.
The state law expired a month later, so even if the town approved slot machines in a subsequent vote, Scarborough Downs would again need state approval. But Scarborough residents voted against slot machines again in 2008, by a narrow 2 percent margin.
The Downs took a new direction two years later, when it proposed relocating to Biddeford. Voters in that city in 2010 approved having a track with slot machines, known as a racino. A year later, however, voters statewide shot it down.
Both municipalities are still in contention as the location for the Downs, MacColl said.
Although slots are already allowed in Biddeford, he said, the Downs would have to go through a zone change process to build a new facility there.
The Scarborough Town Council approved a zone change in August that would allow slot machines at the track, but the Downs would still need the approval of the town’s voters.
MacColl said he believes the city of Biddeford is still interested in becoming the home of the Downs. After going though the zone change in Scarborough, he has hope that that town’s attitude about slot machines has changed.
“The tone of that process was different than it has been in the past,” he said.
Some members of Scarborough’s legislative delegation said Friday they would have preferred to see the state take a wholesale approach to gambling.
“It’s kind of all over the place,” said Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.
Still, she said, bringing in slot machines to offset revenue the town has lost from the state is “worth considering,” she said. “I think times change.”
Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, also said she’s “open to the possibility” of having slot machines at the Downs, but doesn’t think the bill proposed is the right solution and would like to see the committee “come up with an equitable and fair way to deal with the situation.”
Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said she has concerns about the proposal and about whether slot machines will actually help the harness racing industry.
“Expanding gaming in Maine should be done in the context of its impact for the entire state, not just one community,” she said.
Rep. Jeffery Gifford, R-Lincoln, who sponsored the bill, said he believes Scarborough Downs “needs a shot in the arm” and he has an interest in seeing an industry grow in any area of the state.
“It’s a business thing that’s good for the economy,” he said.
Scarborough Downs’ President Sharon Terry has said that the track’s revenue has dropped by 22 percent since slot machines began operating in Bangor in 2005. Since then, the Oxford Casino has opened and the Bangor venue has added table games.
“There’s no chance that small market commercial racetracks can be prohibited from having modern gaming and still compete with full-fledged casinos,” MacColl said. “No chance at all.”
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: