November 4, 2011

Charges fly over racino claims

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – With five days to go before Election Day, the accuracy of claims made by both sides of referendum efforts to expand racino gambling in Maine have come under fire.

Question 2

How do you plan to vote on Question 2, which would allow racinos in Biddeford and Washington County?

Yes

No

Undecided

View Results

Proponents of the Biddeford Downs racino are denouncing what they describe as a deceptive flier distributed by opponents of Question 2, which asks voters to allow harness race tracks with slot machines in Biddeford and Washington County.

And a prominent casino critic is challenging the truthfulness of a new TV ad that supports Question 2.

At issue in both cases is how much revenue generated by the two casinos would be spent on education.

The flier, paid for by the Friends of Oxford Casino and mailed to registered voters over the past two weeks, claims that approval of Question 2 -- and Question 3, a separate ballot measure that would allow a casino in Lewiston -- would "put at risk" $25 million in funding for K-12 education in Maine. The flier urges voters to "protect Maine schools" and reject both ballot questions. Question 2 critics say adding two new racinos in Maine would cut into Oxford revenues, a portion of which would go to K-12 education.

Appearing at a news conference Thursday at the Yes on 2 campaign headquarters in Biddeford, the developers that would build Biddeford Downs said the flier is wrong.

Mark Walsh, vice president of Ocean Properties, which is also bankrolling the Yes on 2 campaign, said its opponents are deliberately confusing voters. He said operators of the Oxford casino and Hollywood Slots want to make sure that Biddeford Downs is never built so they can maintain a monopoly on gambling in Maine. Black Bear Entertainment is developing the Oxford casino and Penn National operates the Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who serves on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, said a Biddeford racino would "not cut a nickel" from K-12 education. It would provide $3 million annually for college scholarships and a projected $32 million for the General Fund, he said.

"I know referendum campaigns can be misleading at times, but there is no excuse to be misleading," he said at the news conference.

Meanwhile, an anti-casino advocate is challenging the truthfulness of a new TV ad in support of Question 2. The ad features a teacher from Pittsfield who says Question 2 is "great for education" and would provide $30 million for "things like Maine schools."

Dennis Bailey of Casinos No! said none of the racino money would be earmarked for K-12 education. Bailey called the ad "completely false."

The controversy highlights the different revenue distribution formulas for the Oxford casino and the Biddeford racino.

By law, K-12 funding would get the largest amount of funding from the portion of Oxford casino revenues distributed to the state, an estimated $25 million a year.

Taxes from the racino in Biddeford would go primarily to the harness racing industry, a prescription drug program for the elderly, college scholarships and the state's General Fund.

Question 2 proponents say all or part of the projected $32 million earmarked for the General Fund could be spend on K-12 education.

But Bailey said nothing in the law would require that the money be spent that way.

"It might go to education. It might go to building golf courses," he said. "No one knows where the money will go."

Mark Ferguson, a Poland convenience store manager who is director of Friends of Oxford Casino, said the plan to distribute the largest share of Biddeford Downs revenue to harness racing rather than K-12 education proves the project's developers are "out of touch" with Maine voters.

"It's kind of silly," he said. "They want larger flower bouquets for the winning horses versus more money for our kids."

Friends of Oxford Casino has received $281,457 to date from just two contributors: $200,250 from Black Bear Funding, a political action committee funded by the original investors of the Oxford casino, and $81,207 from Penobscot County for Table Games and Jobs, a political action committee funded by Penn National, which operates Hollywood Slots in Bangor.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@mainetoday.com 

TV ad for YES on QUESTION 2

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Question 2

How do you plan to vote on Question 2, which would allow racinos in Biddeford and Washington County?

Yes

No

Undecided

View Results