A group campaigning against gambling referendums on the Nov. 8 state ballot has received nearly all of its money from a political action committee funded by the backers of the Oxford casino and Hollywood Slots, according to most recent campaign financing reports.

Critics say it’s hypocritical for the group, Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, to take money from gambling interests while opposing proposals to expand gambling. But the leader of the group says that the coalition is based on the mutual interest of defeating the two ballot questions.

Question 2 would allow slot machines at harness race tracks in Biddeford and Washington County, and Question 3 would allow a casino in Lewiston.

Chris O’Neil, spokesman for Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, said his group is taking money from gambling interests for “pragmatic” reasons, explaining that the people and businesses that have funded anti-gambling referendums in the past no longer have the inclination or capacity to give money.

“As long as it’s fair and legal and legit, we need help,” he said. “We are up against powerful interests who have deep pockets.”

But one investor in the proposed casino in Lewiston said that what the group is doing is protecting the monopolies of existing gambling operations and preventing others from having a chance at economic development.

“What they have now is a good deal, and that’s why they are fighting to keep it,” said Ron Chicoine, a Lewiston anesthesiologist.

In a campaign finance report filed last Friday, Mainers Against a Rotten Deal reported receiving $50,425 to date. Of that amount, $50,000 was contributed by Friends of Oxford Casino.

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.

The first phase of the Oxford casino is now under construction. Hollywood Slots has been operating since 2005.

The creation of new gambling operations in Biddeford and Lewiston would draw customers away from the Oxford casino and make it more difficult to create a destination resort in Oxford, said Jim Boldebook of Alfred, an investor in the Oxford casino.

Likewise, Hollywood Slots would lose 30 percent of its revenues if voters pass Question 2 and Question 3, said Dan Cashman, spokesman for Penobscot County for Table Games and Jobs.

Because the number of gambling dollars in the marketplace is limited, Boldebook said, competition would also mean that the Oxford casino would have less money to spend on K-12 education. The Oxford casino’s revenue distribution plan calls for spending a certain percentage of revenue on K-12 education annually, expected to be about $25 million a year based on revenue projections.

Taxes from the racino in Biddeford would go primarily to the harness racing industry, a prescription drug program for the elderly, and the state’s General Fund. Taxes on the Lewiston casino would be spent mostly on various economic development projects.

Boldebook said that Friends of Oxford Casino, headed by Poland convenience store manager Mark Ferguson, operates independently. Although Boldebook said he was not aware that the group had given money to Mainers Against a Rotten Deal, he believes the contribution is appropriate.

While the Mainers Against a Rotten Deal and existing gambling operators have a common interest in defeating Question 2 and Question 3, the coalition is a temporary one that will end after the election, O’Neil said. He said the groups may clash on gambling issues in the Legislature.

He noted that Putting Maine to Work, the political action committee promoting Question 2, has by far the most money, spending more than $2.8 million during the campaign, according to the latest campaign finance report to the state. The committee’s spending was bankrolled by Ocean Properties Ltd., the developer of the proposed Biddeford racino.

Crystal Canney, spokesperson for the Yes on 2 campaign, said that no business in the current economy should be trying to stop a project that would put people to work. 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at [email protected]