AUGUSTA — A proposal to allow Scarborough Downs to install slot machines at its racetrack without a statewide referendum is still alive following a close vote Thursday in the House of Representatives.
The House voted 78-62, against a motion to kill L.D. 1111, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Gifford, R-Lincoln, that would allow a harness racing track to operate slot machines pending the approval of voters in the town where it’s located. The House tabled an amendment, also supported by Scarborough Downs, that would set up a state-run licensing process to establish a full-fledged resort casino in southern Maine if approved by municipal referendum.
If lawmakers later approve the amendment bill, Scarborough Downs would have the inside track to win the resort gaming license. The amendment would have the state give preference to a bidder who “has demonstrated experience in providing entertainment” through wagering on harness racing.
Supporters of the L.D. said Thursday that it would allow Scarborough Downs to compete with casinos in Oxford and Bangor. Sharon Terry, president of Scarborough Downs, has said the two casinos have sapped revenue from the harness racing facility, putting the 64-year-old operation on the brink of closing.
Lawmakers who support the bill said harness racing helps employ 1,600 Mainers and supports family farms.
Opponents said it could slice into the revenues of casinos that were approved through statewide referendum. In addition, both the original and amended versions of L.D. 1111 would circumvent a state provision that prohibits the operation of two gaming facilities within 100 miles of each other. The provision is designed to prevent two gaming facilities in a small geographical area from splitting a limited gambling market.
A majority of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted against L.D. 1111. Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, co-chairman of the committee, said during Thursday’s House debate that the bill would continue the state’s fragmented approach to casino authorization and put lawmakers in the position of “picking winners and losers.” He added that the bid process in the amended version of L.D. 1111 isn’t competitive.
Supporters of the bill say the state’s current gaming laws discourage competition by prohibiting Scarborough Downs from adding slot machines to its facility. They also point out that the bill would require a $50 million licensing fee – much higher than the $250,000 fee paid by the casinos in Oxford and Bangor.
The proposal faces additional hurdles after Thursday’s House vote. The authorization of proposed gaming facilities is a perennial issue at the Legislature, which has often put the issue to voters. Gov. Paul LePage has consistently said that casinos should be approved by referendum.
Also, interests backing the casinos in Oxford and Bangor are well-financed and have successfully defeated proposed gaming expansions that would threaten their share of the limited market for gambling in Maine.
In 2011, Friends of Oxford Casino, a political action committee, helped defeat a proposed Biddeford racino and partner facility in Washington County, and a proposed casino in Lewiston. Scarborough Downs, which has been trying for a decade to add slots to its facility, proposed the Biddeford racino in 2011.
Ed MacColl, an attorney representing the Downs, has said that avoiding the influence of a “well-financed opposition” is one of the reasons Scarborough Downs is pursuing a bill that would end the requirement for a statewide referendum.
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 approves 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.
Lawmakers on Thursday also gave preliminary approval to two bills that would allow two Native American tribes to establish gaming facilities without statewide approval by voters. Both bills face additional votes in the House and Senate.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: