Free Shawn Scott.

I mean that metaphorically, of course, since Scott, a Las Vegas gambling developer, isn’t currently incarcerated. My call for his liberation has less to do with shackles and chains and more to do with him being constrained by legalities in his effort to build a casino in York County.

I admit that as a poster child for a leniency campaign, Scott leaves much to be desired. According to published reports, his past is littered with lawsuits – more than three dozen in an eight-year period – as well as associating with a criminal type and being less than forthcoming in providing required financial information to the Maine Harness Racing Commission during an earlier, extremely lucrative foray into Maine.

In 2003, Scott engineered the passage of a referendum allowing a racino next to Bangor’s harness racing track, of which he was the majority owner. He risked nearly $3 million on purchasing his interest in the track, and state and municipal referenda legalizing the gaming operation. But his investment paid off. In 2004, he sold both facilities to Penn National, a major operator of casinos, for approximately $51 million.

Now, Scott is attempting a similar scheme in southern Maine. Using financing from his sister, a Miami developer, he’s pushing another referendum to allow him – and, according to its convoluted wording, only him – to plop a gambling facility right in the midst of the most heavily populated and wealthiest part of the state.

There are, however, a few annoying legal entanglements impeding his progress. First, there’s the 61,123 signatures of registered Maine voters needed to trigger the referendum. The outfit Scott hired to collect those names appears to have quality control problems, since nearly half the signers in several of the state’s largest municipalities turned out to be unregistered, duplicates or potentially fictional. By the time you read this, the Secretary of State’s Office may have already rejected the whole mess for failing to meet the law’s requirements. That means there won’t be a referendum, which means Scott can’t build a casino he can then sell to some big operator for big bucks.

As counterintuitive as it seems, that just ain’t right.

For murky reasons, Maine treats casinos differently from other types of businesses. If Scott wanted to open a pharmacy, convenience store, dog kennel or even a Walmart, he wouldn’t need a referendum to make it legal. He’d have to deal with zoning, licensing, environmental impact and similar red tape. Given the rampant NIMBYism in much of the state, he might have to contend with protesters and reluctant local pols. But entrepreneurs overcome these obstacles every day to start breweries, hair salons and laundries. Surely, a slick operator like Scott wouldn’t be deterred by an indifferent bureaucracy or scruffy picketers.

No matter. Under state law, casinos, other than the two we have now, are essentially illegal. The justification for this prohibition is twofold:

1. Additional gaming emporiums would compete with the existing ones, making them less profitable.

2. Gambling is evil.

On that first point, the obvious counterargument is: Who cares? There’s nothing in the Constitution requiring state government to protect the profit margins of the giant conglomerates that own our casinos. If a new facility with a prime location caused one of the less conveniently situated operations to go bankrupt, that shouldn’t be of concern to our lawmakers. It’s essentially the same situation as when Hannaford opens a new supermarket, forcing the family-owned grocer out of business.

As for the second reason, evil already abounds in local commerce. Maine currently allows the sale of cancer-causing tobacco products. You can legally buy pesticides that are fatal to honey bees. There are no laws against dealing in alcohol, firearms, pornography or Macklemore CDs, all of which are considered by some segments of the population to be affronts to humanity. But casinos are singled out for being so detrimental to society that we’d sooner allow Donald Trump in the White House than permit another one to be built in Maine.

That’s ridiculous. The solution is to free Shawn Scott. But be sure to free the rest of us, too. Because if anybody can get a gambling permit, I know exactly who won’t be interested in applying.

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