This session, the Legislature is dealing with a number of gambling bills. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which I co-chair, has worked extensively on each one of these bills to determine how the Legislature should best address gaming in Maine.

Like many other New England states, Maine has had gambling in one form or another for centuries. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that Maine approved a state lottery by a citizen-initiated referendum and 2004 that voters supported a proposal allowing slot machines at racetracks. The following year, Hollywood Slots opened its doors in Bangor, becoming the first facility of its kind in Maine. The next major expansion of gambling came in 2010 when the citizens of Maine voted to allow a casino in Oxford County.

Last year, people gambled more than $1.1 billion at Maine’s two casinos. Recognizing the financial success of these institutions and potential for jobs and economic growth, many groups have sought to bring casinos to their area.

While the state has granted licenses to Hollywood Slots and the Oxford Casino, it has been reluctant to grant others, including Maine’s native tribes, the same opportunities.

For decades now, the tribes have wanted the state to change its stance on tribal gaming. Tribal representatives argue that bringing gambling to their counties will remedy high unemployment and slow economic growth. Two bills before the Legislature would do just that: One would allow the Passama-quoddy Tribe to build a casino in Washington County and another would extend the same opportunity to the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in Aroostook County.

A third bill would allow the Penobscot Nation and Aroostook Band Micmacs to run high-stakes electronic beano games. The tribes have had difficulty competing with the gaming options that have become available over the last 10 years and argue that this bill simply allows them to modernize their equipment to bring beano games into the 21st century.

In line with this thinking, I have sponsored a bill that would grant off-track betting facilities the ability to conduct Internet and phone wagering so that they, too, can adjust to changing technology and the changing habits of their customers. These activities are already taking place, it’s just that out-of-state companies are profiting from them, rather than Maine companies.

Other Maine gaming facilities are feeling the impact of changing technology. The harness racing facility Scarborough Downs says that if it is not allowed to expand its gaming, it might not be able to continue operating, so it is supporting a bill to create a resort casino in southern Maine, fit with a 100-room hotel and a gaming building near the track. Such a large facility would provide significant revenue for the state and economic development to the area.

My colleague, Sen. John Patrick, has sponsored a bill that would allow veterans and fraternal groups to also operate slot machines. Eligible charitable groups would be able to install slot machines on their premises only in towns that have approved the measure by referendum. Many of these groups have lost out on traditional gaming options while the big casinos have substantially profited.

Increasing gaming opportunities for the tribes, local harness racing tracks, and other charitable organizations is simply providing the same opportunities currently afforded to the two casinos in Maine. These bills would level the playing field and allow Maine’s smaller facilities to modernize so they can fairly compete in the gaming scene.

— Sen. John Tuttle represents Senate District 3, which includes Alfred, Limington, Lyman, Sanford, Springvale and Waterboro. He is the Senate chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and also serves on the Judiciary Committee. He holds weekly office hours on Sundays from 1-3 p.m. at his home, 176 Cottage St. in Sanford.

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