Maine grapples with slew of gambling bills
ALANNA DURKIN Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Maine -- Maine’s two casinos say the market for slot machines is already saturated, but others wanting in on the action -- including a horse racing track, veterans groups and the Passamaquoddy tribe -- have no plans to give up.
Lawmakers are left to sort out the contentious debate in the coming weeks after a special commission failed to recommend a process for approving additional slots.
A harness-racing track and veterans’ organizations are advocating for slot machines as a way to survive as casinos draw gamblers and bingo players away from their facilities. Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe, which has wanted gambling for more than 20 years, sees it as an opportunity to bring much-needed jobs and revenue to Washington County, Maine’s poorest.
The benefits of casinos on the economies of Bangor and Oxford since opening several years ago are clear, said Rep. Madonna Soctomah, and allowing the tribes to also reap those benefits is only fair. Soctomah represents the tribe in the Legislature.
"Why is there not a consideration to allow the tribe to build infrastructure, to upgrade Washington County, to help support economic development, so that we can more self-sufficient?" she said.
Various gambling proposals were introduced last session, but lawmakers put them on hold so they could study the feasibility of expanding gambling in Maine and develop a competitive bidding process for future casino and slot machine licenses. Lawmakers want to give the Legislature more control over gambling.
They set up a commission made up of lawmakers, the groups seeking casinos, and representatives from Hollywood and Oxford Casino, to determine the potential market for new gambling opportunities in Maine.
But during a meeting last fall, the panel’s gambling supporters recommended that the Legislature approve the on-hold proposals. Because the motion was supported by most of its members, the commission folded without doing what it set out to do, said Democratic Sen. John Patrick of Rumford, who co-chaired the group.
Operators of Maine’s two existing casinos who oppose the proposals told lawmakers earlier this month that expanding gambling in Maine will severely damage their businesses and provide little or no economic benefit to the state.
They also pointed to Maine voters’ recent rejection of new casinos through statewide referendums. A proposal by the tribes was defeated in 2003 and again in 2007 and 2011. Voters in Scarborough denied efforts to expand gambling at Scarborough Downs in 2003 and 2008.
John Osborne, general manager of Hollywood Casino, told the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that new slot machines throughout Maine would "cannibalize" his business and argued that adding casinos must be based on sound economic data.
"There are simply too many existing jobs and local economic development at stake to do otherwise," Osborne said, according to his written testimony.
But Sharon Terry, president of Scarborough Downs, said without slot machines, her locally-owned facility will be put out of business by huge out-of-state corporations. Oxford Casino was sold in March to the parent company of Churchill Downs Racetrack for $160 million. Hollywood Casino is owned by Penn National, which owns or operates 19 casinos in the U.S. and Canada.
Scarborough Downs has seen a 25 percent drop in revenues since Oxford Casino opened in 2012, Terry said.
"We have made many, many cuts to our operation as we have gone along and there’s just not many places left to cut," she said.
The prospect for many of the bills took a hit last week when the committee recommended that the bills be rejected. The only bill supported by the committee was one allowing veterans’ organizations like the American Legion put slot machines in their halls.
Jack Sours, vice president and general manager of Oxford Casino, said in a statement the casino agrees with the majority of the committee that existing casinos need stability and predictability to "continue to invest in our facilities and our communities and bring increased economic development dollars and jobs to Maine."
But the bills are far from dead, lawmakers say. Patrick said any of them could gain traction in the coming weeks, he said.
"The way things play out here, you never know," he said.
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