AUGUSTA – Lawmakers appear eager to make a technical change to Maine’s gambling laws that would allow construction of a casino in Oxford.

At issue is a requirement that casinos and other slot-machine facilities in Maine be at least 100 miles apart. Whether that means 100 miles as a crow flies or 100 miles as a car would travel isn’t spelled out.

It is a critical question because Black Bear Entertainment has chosen a site for its casino that is 95 miles from Hollywood Slots in Bangor when measured in a straight line, but 125 miles away when measured by a car’s odometer.

Voters last November narrowly approved a ballot question allowing the casino to be built — the question included the 100-mile requirement.

The casino’s investors said they meant “road miles” when they wrote the language for the question.

L.D. 677, a bill sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, aims to clarify the law. It stipulates that distances between gambling venues should be measured by “the most commonly used roadway” as determined by the Maine Department of Transportation.

The Legislature’s Legal and Veteran Affairs Committee held a public hearing on the bill Wednesday.

After the meeting, Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, who had voted against the casino referendum in November, said he believes the committee will unanimously support the bill once some minor details are worked out.

“It will have to pass,” he said. “It’s the citizens’ intent whether we like it or not.”

Plowman said she counted 11 of 13 committee members in support of the bill and also expected it to win unanimous endorsement.

Of the 18 people who testified at the hearing, only one, Mary Taylor of Oxford, spoke against the bill.

Taylor, who owns a fourth-generation homestead near the proposed site of the casino on Route 26, said it’s not the job of the Legislature to further the business interests of Black Bear Entertainment.

Other revisions to the law have been proposed, such as changes in how revenue would be distributed. But Oxford casino investors say the only part of the voter-approved law that should be changed is how the 100-mile separation is measured.

“Black Bear Entertainment cannot have it both ways,” she said.

The bill’s supporters said that voters who approved the referendum question assumed the casino would meet the distance criteria because there would be no other place to build it in Oxford County.

Several speakers said the bill should be approved because the region badly needs jobs.

Bob Bayer, one of the casino’s investors and former owner of Oxford Plains Speedway, listed recent plant closures in the county.

“They’re all gone — 1,000 jobs — right down the drain,” he told the committee. “We’ve got to do something to help.”

Scarborough Downs, which has partnered with Ocean Properties in hopes of building a $120 million racino and resort hotel complex in Biddeford, last month urged the state Gambling Control Board to measure the 100 miles as a straight line.

But Wednesday, the group reversed its position and urged lawmakers to measure the distance in road miles.

Edward MacColl, an attorney for Scarborough Downs, said the racetrack never opposed the Legislature helping the Oxford casino.

Rather, it had argued that the Legislature needed to amend the law as needed to help the Oxford project, and make further amendments that would allow the Biddeford Downs project to go forward as well.

Peter Connell of Ocean Properties said Plowman’s bill honors the will of voters.

“We all believe in economic development and job creation in Oxford, Biddeford, and in all of Maine,” he said.

Crockett said Biddeford Downs’ backers would have lost all credibility with the committee if they had opposed Plowman’s bill.

The committee is expected to vote on the bill March 25.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

[email protected]