October 2, 2013

Our View: Gambling interests shouldn’t control state commission

A commission created to create an orderly process for the state to expand gambling is recommending a chaotic free-for-all.

Casino gambling is still in its infancy in Maine, and little is known about the impact of the slot machine parlors in Bangor and Oxford. Less than a decade since the legalization of slot machines, many important questions remain unanswered.

click image to enlarge

A patron plays the slot machines at Hollywood Casino in Bangor in 2012. A commission established to analyze the impact of gaming in Maine and chart a path forward is cutting short that effort.

2012 File Photo/John Patriquin

Unfortunately, they will stay that way for the meantime. A commission established to analyze the impact of gaming in Maine and chart a path forward is cutting short that effort and recommending that gambling be expanded in almost all circumstances.

In January, the recommendation will go before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which should reject it, then fill the commission with members who are serious about tackling an issue that affects the entire state.

The commission was established to bring order to the way the state approves and licenses gaming facilities.

The process so far has been driven by gambling interests and decided through citizen referendums, with no guidance from an overarching state policy.

As a result, Maine likely has left millions of dollars on the table, in the form of significant licensing fees required in states such as Massachusetts. Some states also require a company certify the amount it will spend on a particular project, so that residents know exactly what they are getting when it is approved.

By not doing so, Maine loses the power to shape the projects and hold developers to their promises.

More importantly, the commission was supposed to find out just what a decade of gambling expansion has meant to the state, and how the various gaming proposals now on the table would change that.

It is important to know the impact of casinos on the local and state economy, as well as their impact on public safety. We need to break down where the money comes from – in-state or out – and whether the spending affects other industries, for good or ill. We need to know what the impact on gambling revenues will be of any new facilities in Maine, or New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Canada.

But at just the commission’s third meeting, of six planned, a majority of the members decided those questions didn’t matter.

A representative of Ocean Properties, which is involved in a project to bring slots to Biddeford, put forward a motion recommending the speedy expansion of gambling: casinos in southern Maine and Aroostook and Washington counties, slot machines for nonprofit and veterans groups, and online wagering for off-track betting and harness racing facilities.

The measure passed 10-8, with support from the tribal representatives, harness-racing interests and others who will benefit most from expanded gambling.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, the commission’s chairman, said the motion took him by surprise, and that he was disappointed the panel was hijacked by the pro-gambling contingent.

“There’s a group that wants gaming in Maine at any cost,” he said in an interview this week.

It might be that a casino in southern Maine or Washington County would be good for those regions and the state as a whole. Any decisions, however, should be put off until we know just what the cost is.

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