When casino proposals surfaced in Maine more than a decade ago, with glowing projections for economic expansion and enormous boosts to state revenue, I wrote numerous columns opposing them as far too good to be true.
Other casino opponents included most of the state’s voters (most of the time) and former governors Angus King and John Baldacci.
But while a referendum sponsored by two Maine Indian tribes to build a $650 million “destination resort casino” in York County failed in 2003, voters simultaneously passed a plan to allow two “racinos” to support the state’s permanent harness racing tracks in Bangor and Scarborough.
Local approval was required, and Bangor voters signed on willingly, but Scarborough and its surrounding towns did not, and southern Maine remains without such a facility. Another Indian-run casino plan failed in 2007. But voters flipped in 2008, and western Maine ended up hosting a second non-Indian “gaming” site in Oxford.
Both casinos have since expanded to offer “table games” such as blackjack and poker — but the Oxford casino has fallen far short of its backers’ glittering promises to create an upscale vacationers’ paradise featuring a 300-room resort and many other amenities.
And no more casinos have been built, nor have slot machines flooded out to social clubs, restaurants, county fairs and other venues. That surprised me, as I thought once the dam had been broken a second time, there would be no limits to gambling’s expansion.
However, three more racino/casino referendums were defeated in 2011, and this year the Maine Senate put the kibosh on six gambling expansion bills (due to opposition from the existing facilities, some say).
Senate leaders said the bills were defeated because the state lacked an “organized plan” for gambling expansion, but such a plan remains beyond the political horizon.
Meanwhile, things are happening nationally that indicate all is not well with the gambling biz. The CEO of the casinocustomerservice.com website, Marty Baird, who runs a private firm serving the casino industry (and is therefore hardly opposed to its success), said in his blog last week that “Casino competition in the United States is in overdrive and the resulting market saturation is roiling the industry.”
“It sounds like a bad scene from the newest ‘Sharknado’ movie,” Baird wrote, but “casino cash cows are dead and dying at an alarming rate. And they stink.”
Not only has the recent recession reduced people’s discretionary income, forcing the industry to appeal more to hard-core gamblers (some of whom are also known as “addicts”), but the vastly increased number of casinos has led to “customer cannibalization.”
In Illinois, as Crain’s Chicago Business reported on Monday, “the gambling industry’s contraction, punctuated by the June 2 shuttering of a Mississippi casino and a January closing in Atlantic City, N.J., is jeopardizing an easy fix politicians thought they had for economic development.”
Still, three casinos are in the works for Massachusetts, unless voters turn them down in a recently authorized November referendum. New Hampshire’s lawmakers recently rejected a casino plan backed by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, but she says she will continue to campaign for it if re-elected.
But how those casinos — if they survive — will affect Maine’s sites is an open question. As Baird noted, states that lose casino revenues can either raise taxes or “reduce or eliminate programs.” Job losses at shuttered facilities have to be counted on the minus side, too.
The Crain’s report said casino planning is now a “zero-sum game” at the regional and national levels, where they are also threatened by online gaming.
“For now,” Crain’s said, “the greatest threat to casino operators is being eaten by their own kind.”
In addition, casinos in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma and Louisiana are all facing increased competition and an uncertain future.
As Baird put it, “More states are still looking at entering the casino market or allowing more casinos to open. There is no doubt this will kill even more casino cash cows and leave a very putrid mess.”
Before Maine’s leaders come up with a plan for gambling expansion, citizens can hope they would take this “mess” into account.
There’s no point in building bigger budgets around a revenue source with a very limited future.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: