AUGUSTA — The hopes of Maine’s American Indian Tribes and harness racing industry to build casinos died in the Legislature on Thursday as lawmakers insisted that the state must fashion a regulatory process before approving any new slot machines.
The contentious proposals have divided lawmakers this session over what benefits – if any – more casinos would bring to Maine.
Some lawmakers said they need more time to answer questions about how more slot machines would impact a state with just slightly more than 1 million residents. But casino backers like the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which views slots as vital to its community’s economic survival, said that’s the same argument it has heard for more than 20 years.
“It’s just a delay tactic,” said Joseph Socobasin, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, who backed the bill to bring a casino to Washington County.
A proposal that would have allowed the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to build a casino in Aroostook County was among the other measures killed Thursday. Scarborough Downs racetrack’s measure – a resort casino with a hotel, swimming pools and restaurant in southern Maine – also died in the Democratic-controlled Senate after initially clearing the House this month.
Lawmakers maintained that it’s essential to create a competitive bidding process before adding new casinos to two that already exist, in Bangor and Oxford, so that the state can have more control over license fees and other aspects. They sought to do that last year and created a commission made up of legislators and tribal chiefs among others, but the group disbanded after it failed to agree how to move forward.
“Is there a market to be expanded on gaming in Maine?” asked Republican Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls. “If there is, how are we going to create the most jobs and get the most money for the General Fund? These are questions that must be answered before we expand gaming any further in this state.”
The operators of Hollywood and Oxford casinos also fought against the proposals, arguing that new slot machines would “cannibalize” their businesses.
Other bills turned down Thursday would have allowed Maine’s veterans’ organizations, including the American Legion, to put slot machines in their clubs and would let the Penobscot Nation and Aroostook Band of Micmacs run high-stakes electronic bingo games.
Sharon Terry, president of Scarborough Downs, called the vote a “total disappointment” and said she wasn’t sure what steps the racetrack would take next. It has seen a 25 percent drop in revenues since Oxford Casino opened in 2012 and Terry has questioned how much longer it will be able to stay open if it isn’t granted the ability to operate slot machines.
But Socobasin said the tribe will continue its fight to bring a casino to one of Maine’s poorest counties.
“We’re certainly not going to go away,” he said. “For 22 years we have pursued gaming and we’re certainly not going to give up.”