November 10, 2011

Too many casinos seen at heart of voter rejections

But the issue isn't dead, and lawmakers will have a chance to develop an approach to allowing gambling facilities.

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Regional rivalries and concerns about a major statewide expansion of gambling doomed two ballot questions even though they promised new jobs in a tough economy, political analysts said Wednesday.

The clear rejection of Questions 2 and 3 on Tuesday has also led to a renewed call for Maine to take a comprehensive approach to considering future gaming proposals.

Voters rejected Question 2, which would have allowed new harness racing tracks with slot machines in Biddeford and Washington County, by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. They defeated Question 3, a proposal for a downtown casino in Lewiston, 63 percent to 37 percent.

If approved, the proposals would have expanded the number of gambling facilities in the state from two to five.

"I thought the jobs argument was going to push this over the top," said David Findlay, an economics professor at Colby College.

But he said voters likely didn't want Maine to build too many casinos, given that New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island would all compete for the same customers.

"There's only so many casino dollars floating around and voters don't view these as a sustainable way to promote economic development," he said.

Advertising funded largely by competing gambling facilities in Bangor and Oxford argued that the state could not support five gambling venues. That argument was bolstered last week when Gov. Paul LePage said at a Colby College forum that he, too, did not think Maine's population of 1.3 million could support five facilities.

Voters living near existing or proposed gambling facilities didn't want the competition, an analysis of the results suggests.

Voters in Androscoggin, Oxford and Penobscot counties all voted strongly against Question 2. Androscoggin County is home to Lewiston, where proponents had hoped to get a casino.

A casino is under construction and scheduled to open next year in Oxford County, and Penobscot County is home to Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which received local approval Tuesday to include table games as well as slots.

Question 2 was rejected by Bangor voters 5,390 to 2,160, while voters in Oxford rejected it 1,055 to 226.

Statewide, Question 2 was voted down in 12 counties, and approved in only Kennebec, Somerset, Washington and York counties. The vote in York, where Biddeford is located, was surprisingly close, 29,748 to 27,722.

Question 3 lost in all 16 counties, with voters in Oxford, Penobscot, Washington and York all strongly opposed. In Bangor, the question failed 5,890 to 1,654 and in Oxford, the vote was 1,129 to 154.

Argument against a substantial increase in gambling facilities, and whether the state could support it, likely convinced voters to reject the proposals, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. He talked about the "reasonableness" of Maine voters, which he believes also led to the passage of Question 1, which restored same-day voter registration.

"The outcome on Questions 1, 2, and 3 can be explained by this certain inherent level of reasonableness that Maine voters have," he said. "I think a lot of people were thinking along the same lines as Gov. LePage."

Another factor, said University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt, was voter fatigue. Mainers have voted eight times in 11 years on gambling questions, approving facilities in Bangor and Oxford, and rejecting the rest.

"It feels like this has been an issue that's been going on for years," he said.

Patrick Murphy, president of the polling firm Pan Atlantic SMS, said the questions were defeated by wider-than-expected margins because it was an off-year election. His firm did not do any polling on the gambling questions this election.

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