AUGUSTA — A proposal to build a resort-style casino in southern Maine received a second life Friday after a divided legislative committee moved to put the proposal before the full Legislature for the second time in two years.
The 8-3 vote by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee followed what has been an intense lobbying campaign by proponents of the casino, including the construction company Cianbro, developer Ocean Properties and the harness racing industry. Those groups have been countered by established casinos in Oxford County and Bangor owned by Churchill Downs and Penn National, respectively. The prospect for the resort casino is further complicated by a bid by a controversial Las Vegas gambling developer to put his proposal for a York County casino before voters in November.
The proposal is similar to a bill that stalled last year. It was amended Friday to increase the license fee from $25 million to $50 million, dividing a portion of the fee between the state’s General Fund and a so-called mitigation fund if either of the two existing casinos in Oxford County or Bangor closes within five years of the resort casino’s opening in southern Maine. Five percent of the license fee would go the General Fund. Forty-five percent would go the mitigation fund.
The revenues from table games and slot machines would also be divided among veterans organizations, the harness racing industry, the state’s Highway Fund, gambling addiction prevention, off-track betting facilities, the host municipality, the town of Oxford, the city of Bangor, state education funding as well as other programs and causes.
The wide-ranging list of recipients underscores the varying interests that have been competing for a slice of the revenue. In the past, interest groups left out or feeling shortchanged by such distributions have helped defeat casino proposals in the Legislature.
It is unclear if the current revenue outlay will be enough to advance the bill, L.D. 1280, which is still likely to face stiff opposition from Churchill Downs and Penn National.
Lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee debated the proposal for several hours before the vote. Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, said he was a reluctant supporter.
“I’m not so big on casinos, especially a third or fourth one,” he said, adding, “But it’s a business and we need business here in Maine.”
The Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association has supported the proposal, saying the revenues could help sustain their industry. Veterans groups have also supported the bill.
The York County proposal attempting to qualify for the November ballot loomed in the background of Friday’s vote.
The York County proposal is backed by Shawn Scott, whose sister, Lisa Scott, has financed an unorthodox ballot campaign that has generated much criticism and scrutiny. It is unclear if Scott’s referendum will be certified by state election officials, who are currently reviewing the campaign’s signatures to see if it has the 61,123 to qualify for the ballot.
If the campaign is certified, and the resort casino clears the Legislature, Maine voters could be contemplating multiple casino proposals when they go to the ballot box in November. While the resort casino bill discussed Friday isn’t proposed as a statewide referendum, it could end up that way because it could be challenged as a competing measure if Scott’s proposal is certified.
Scott’s proposal would authorize Scott – and only Scott – to apply for a license to operate slot machines and table games at a facility at an unspecified location in York County. It would exempt the operator from a state law that prohibits a casino from opening within 100 miles of existing casinos or slot machine facilities. There are currently two casinos in Maine: Hollywood Casino in Bangor and the Oxford Casino. Scott’s proposal would raise the state limit on the number of registered slot machines from 3,000 to 4,500
Before the multiple gambling question scenario happens, the resort casino must clear the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage. LePage has previously stated that the voters should decide gambling proposals, not the Legislature. He has also said that Maine cannot support gambling expansion beyond the casinos already operating in Bangor and Oxford.
If he vetoes the resort casino bill, proponents would need to persuade two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate to override him. That could prove difficult, as amended versions of the bill did not clear the Senate last year and affirmative votes in the House were relatively close.
Passage of the bill would also likely further inflame tensions between the state and its American Indian tribes, who saw their own measure to allow a gambling facility on tribal lands in Aroostook County or Washington County defeated in the Legislature last year.
In September 2014, a report commissioned by the Legislature determined there was market capacity for additional casino gambling in Maine and recommended that any facility be located in the southern end of the state within close proximity of Interstate 95. The report, from Atlantic City-based WhiteSand Gaming, also said the state could support a modest casino – limited to 250 slot machines and 10 table games – near the Maine-Canada border in Washington County or Aroostook County in addition to the southern Maine facility.