AUGUSTA — Maine’s American Indian tribes that have long seen gambling as the remedy for high unemployment and sluggish economic growth in their communities are a step closer to being able to operate casinos after winning initial approval in the Democratic-controlled House on Thursday.
After several hours of debate, the House voted to overturn the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee’s recommendation that the proposals be killed, giving new life to the bills that would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Washington County and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to operate one in Aroostook County.
Tribal representatives who’ve been working to bring gambling to their counties for decades stressed their frustration with consistently being denied the ability to do so while casinos have opened in Bangor and Oxford and reaped significant economic benefits for their communities.
“Time and time again we have been told now is not the time, that we must develop a better plan or work more closely with local communities,” said Rep. Madonna Soctomah, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the Legislature and backed the first bill to bring a gambling facility to Washington County in the early 1990s. “At the same time, the state has granted licenses to two gaming facilities. We only ask that we be given the same opportunity.”
But operators of Maine’s two existing casinos are fiercely opposing the bills and contend that new gambling in the Maine, with a population of only 1.3 million, will devastate their businesses.
The Passamaquoddy Tribe applauded the House’s action on Thursday, but the proposals still face a long road in the Legislature and, even then, voters in Washington County will get the final say.
“We’re very happy with the vote, but we’ve been here before,” said Joseph Socobasin, chief of the tribe. “We certainly have some work left to do. We’re not across the finish line yet.”