AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives voted 83-61 Wednesday to defeat a bill that would establish a resort-style casino in either Cumberland County or York County.

The vote followed a long debate between lawmakers who believe that a casino in southern Maine is inevitable and those who are trying to protect two existing gambling operations.

The first of several votes on the issue extended a debate that raged last year and was revived by lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee who amended the bill in February and sent it to the floor of the Legislature.

Although Wednesday’s vote does not bode well for the bill, casino measures often have been amended and subjected to intensive lobbying between the two chambers of the Legislature, so the proposal is not necessarily dead.

As with previous gambling bills, the battle over building a casino that proponents said would be worth more than $500 million was not partisan but regional and, in some instances, ideological. Lawmakers representing regions in or near Oxford and Bangor, the homes of two operating casinos, spoke against the proposal, while lawmakers in southern Maine were mostly supportive.

The bill would establish a competitive bid process for the right to build a casino in one of the two counties. The plan would be subject to approval by voters in either county. The proposal is similar to a bill that stalled last year but was changed to increase the license fee paid to the state from $25 million to $50 million. The fee would be divided between the state’s general fund and a so-called mitigation fund if either of the two existing casinos closed within five years of the resort casino’s opening in southern Maine.

DIVIDING UP POTENTIAL REVENUE

One overlooked provision of the bill would authorize a future Legislature to develop uniform standards for the “cascade” of all gambling facilities operating in the state. A cascade determines how casino revenues are distributed, such as the state’s fund for local education aid, agricultural programs, harness racing or veterans programs.

The two existing casinos have cascades that are vastly different from each other. The proposal would allow lawmakers to change the existing cascades, a possibility that could rile affected interest groups.

The revenues from table games and slot machines in the southern Maine casino also would 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, and 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.

Rep. Roger Reed, R-Carmel, argued that the distribution of revenue in the proposal was designed to make sure nobody could oppose it because it contained spending on causes that appealed to each legislator.

Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, co-chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said the bill is bad policy and ignores a consultant’s finding that higher license fees and tax rates could subvert job growth and capital expenditures.

Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, responded that the proposal requires a minimum capital expenditure of $250 million. He said a casino in southern Maine would capitalize on tourism in an area that makes up about 40 percent of the state’s tourism business. Parry also addressed concerns that the proposal would cannibalize business at Oxford Casino, operated by Churchill Downs, and Hollywood Slots in Bangor, operated by Penn National Gaming. He predicted the southern Maine casino would mostly draw business from outside the state.

“You don’t get a lot of money for Maine if you take it from one pocket to put it in another pocket,” he said.

Other lawmakers argued that the Legislature should pass the proposal because legislators had a say in developing it. Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said other gambling proposals, including a controversial ballot bid by a Las Vegas gambling impresario to build a York County casino for which he would be the sole beneficiary, are a hodgepodge of regulations largely crafted by the gambling industry.

Russell said the Legislature should pass the southern Maine proposal and get to work developing a comprehensive strategy to deal with future gambling proposals. Efforts to do that have repeatedly failed in the Legislature amid the pressure of lobbyists for competing interests.

INTEREST GROUPS LOBBY LAWMAKERS

The southern Maine casino bill, L.D. 1280, was the subject of lobbying by several groups Wednesday. Proponents included the construction company Cianbro, developer Ocean Properties and the harness racing industry. Those groups were countered by the established casinos in Oxford and Bangor.

The Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association has supported the proposal, saying the revenues could help sustain its industry. Veterans groups also have supported the bill.

Meanwhile, the fate of the York County ballot proposal remains uncertain. State election officials determined this month that the Horseracing Jobs Fairness campaign failed to gather enough valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The campaign is appealing the decision in court.

The ballot proposal is backed by Shawn Scott, whose sister, Lisa Scott, financed a ballot campaign that generated much criticism and scrutiny for the aggressive tactics of paid signature-gatherers. The proposal would authorize Shawn 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 also would exempt the operator from a state law that prohibits a casino from opening within 100 miles of existing casinos or slot machine facilities, and would raise the state limit on the number of registered slot machines from 3,000 to 4,500.

The southern Maine casino bill faces additional votes in the Senate and House.