Saturday, March 8, 2014
AUGUSTA — Lawmakers may hear three separate plans to expand casino gambling in Maine when they resume debate today about the citizen-initiated Oxford County casino proposal.
The House will consider amendments to that legislation, L.D. 1808, that would ask voters to approve a casino and table games elsewhere in the state. Those proposals would appear alongside the Oxford Casino question as "competing measures" on November's ballot.
"It gets complicated trying to craft a workable competing measure this late in the session," said Majority Whip Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. "To put a competing measure on the ballot, we need to be darn sure that it's a better measure than the one supported by 105,000 Mainers."
Rep. Stacey Fitts, D-Pittsfield, has proposed a competing measure that would ask voters to allow a casino to open in Calais and table games to be added at Hollywood Slots in Bangor.
"This is a way for everybody to feel like they've got something to vote for," said Fitts. "Pitting one business in one region of the state with another is not a good idea."
Other Democrats who oppose gambling, however, have other ideas.
Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, co-chairwoman of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, plans to offer a competing measure to require the state to seek bids for as many as three new casinos, with preference for American Indians, at the Scarborough Downs racetrack or in an area with chronic high unemployment.
Her measure would also allow Hollywood Slots to add table gaming for $3 million and earmark state revenue from new casinos for statewide education and property-tax relief.
"I really don't want to see gambling. I don't think it's a good economic base for Maine," she said. "But if the people want gambling, I think they deserve the opportunity to vote on a good proposal."
Rep. Thom Watson, D-Bath, supports Valentino's amendment. He said it could split the pro-casino vote to force a run-off, or at least draw support away from the Oxford County initiative.
"It may be attractive to voters who would otherwise support casino gambling but may be concerned about it being under the monopolistic control of one company," he said. "One of these referendums is going to be approved, and if it is, I'd rather it be under state control."
Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment, which wants to build the Oxford County casino, is very much opposed to the competitive bid process that Valentino and Watson support.
"To insert an initiative like that really subverts the will of the people that signed our initiative," he said. "There's a real need in the greater Oxford area for economic development and jobs."
Martin said the company was prepared to campaign for the casino in a yes-or-no vote or as part of the three-way deal Fitts has proposed.
Dennis Bailey, executive director of the anti-casino CasinosNo! advocacy group, would prefer to see no competing measure.
"It's just too late in the session to be bringing up a major expansion of casinos," he said. "We should be looking at real long-term development, not an eleventh-hour bet that we're going to regret when we wake up from this hangover."
MaineToday Media State House Reporter Ethan Wilensky-Lanford can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: