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

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

Voters rejected Question 2, which would have allowed new harness racing tracks with slot machines in Biddeford and Calais, by a 55-45 percent margin. And they resoundingly defeated Question 3, a proposal for a downtown casino in Lewiston, by a 63-37 percent vote.

Despite a struggling economy, and promises of hundreds of construction and permanent full-time jobs, Mainers said no to the proposals which would have expanded from two to five the gambling options in the state.

“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 become the “mecca for casinos” in New England, with worries that New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island would all compete for the same dollars.

“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.

Heavy advertising fueled largely by competing gambling venues in Bangor and Oxford aimed to convince voters that the state could not support five gambling spots. And last week, Gov. Paul LePage said at a forum at Colby College that he too did not think Maine’s population of 1.3 million could support five casinos.

Voters who already have gambling facilities nearby – or hoped to get one – didn’t want the competition, an analysis of the results show.

On Question 2, voters in Androscoggin, Oxford and Penobscot counties all voted strongly against the referendum to allow racinos in York and Washington counties. Androscoggin County is home to Lewiston, where voters hoped to get their own casino. In Oxford County, a casino is under construction and scheduled to open next year. Penobscot County is home to Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which got local approval Tuesday to expand its offerings to table games.

Taken a step further, voters in Bangor rejected Question 2 by a vote of 5,390 to 2,160 while voters in Oxford said no 1,055 to 226.

In total, Question 2 was voted down in 12 counties, and only four – Kennebec, Somerset, Washington and York – voted for it. The vote in York, where Biddeford is located, was surprisingly close, with 29,748 in favor and 27,722 against.

Question 3 did not win in any county, with voters in Oxford, Penobscot, Washington and York all voting in strong opposition. In Bangor, the question failed 5,890 to 1,654 and in Oxford, the vote was 1,129 to 154.

In the end, the argument against a major expansion of gambling convinced voters to reject the ballot measures, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Orono. 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 Maine electorate strikes me as reasonable,” he said. “The outcome on Questions 1, 2, and 3 can be explained by this certain inherent level of reasonableness that Maine voters have. 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, while 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.

He expects developers to be back with more proposals in the future, particularly if the Oxford casino proves successful.

“I suppose if the one in Oxford starts to make some money, these other guys will come back and say let’s have a go,” he said.

When the Legislature reconvenes for its second session in January, lawmakers will have the chance to revisit two bills that would put in place a comprehensive approach to approving future gaming facilities. One bill, sponsored by Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, authorizes three additional casinos in the state, subject to competitive bidding.

It sets fees for casino operators and designates where the state’s share of gaming revenues would go: local education, veterans’ property tax exemptions and property tax breaks for homeowners. Recently, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that will allow three casinos and one slots parlor in the state and designates where the facilities can be located.

In a written statement, Valentino said she spoke with people on both sides of the issue this morning and they are ready to sit down and work on a piece of legislation.

“It is time for Maine to set the rules and conditions for any future gambling expansion, not the individual developers,” she said.

Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Chairwoman Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, said she’s heard from several people who want lawmakers to tackle the issue. She said the committee will consider Valentino’s bill and one submitted by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, that also seeks to establish guidelines for gambling facilities. Raye is a fervent supporter of a racino in Washington County and pleaded with fellow lawmakers earlier this year to approve the proposal without sending it out to voters.

“I think it’s been a real failure that the Legislature and a succession of governors have punted on the issue of gaming and left it to lurch along from referendum to referendum, as opposed to having some kind of comprehensive state policy,” Raye said today.

In the past, lawmakers have delayed action on these types of bills because there have been pending citizen initiatives on gambling. Now, the decks are clear.

“I think this is the time,” Farnham said.

Brewer, the UMO professor, agreed, especially since at least one prominent Lewiston casino supporter, former legislator Stavros Mendros, says he wants to get back on the ballot in 2013.

“The way Maine has done this is really about as poorly done as it could possibly be,” Brewer said. “It’s been a mess.”

But Schmidt, the USM professor, and Murphy, the Portland pollster, aren’t so sure lawmakers will follow through with a comprehensive approach.

“Resolving this issue isn’t going to equate with general political benefit,” Schmidt said. “I’d be surprised if this jumped to the top of the list.”

Murphy said he doesn’t think lawmakers have the “stomach” to get into such a controversial issue.
“I personally don’t think they want to deal with it,” he said.

Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:
[email protected]