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Gaming Commission Recommends Gambling Expansion
09/27/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A study group examining Maine's gambling policies and opportunities is recommending that gambling be expanded in the state. The 10-8 recommendation by the gaming commission took some by surprise. But the chairs of the commission said the recommendation is only the first step in what is likely to turn out to be a lengthy and hotly-debated topic.

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Democratic state Sen. John Patrick of Rumford said it's hard for a panel to live up to expectations when it's saddled with a name like the "Commission to Develop a Competitive Bidding Process for the Operation of Additional Casinos or Slot Machine Facilities." So, apparently, did a majority of the panel's members. Instead of exploring more regulations, they want gambling opportunities expanded beyond Maine's two casinos. When the proponents suddenly moved the question, Patrick found himself on the losing end of a 10-8 vote. He said Maine's Indian tribes, southern Maine gaming entrepreneurs, the state's VFW posts and others are missing the point of what he said will happen if slot machine growth goes unchecked.

"There's a certain amount of gaming dollar and that every opportunity to allow everyone to have every opportunity to game and have machines is a recipe for failure," Patrick said.

The majority of the commission's members, many of whom represent expanded gambling interests, voted to direct the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to support legislation for a number of new gambling opportunities, including a southern Maine casino, slots machines and table games for the Passamquoddy Tribe and high stakes electronic Beano games for the Penobscots, Maliseets, MicMacs. The recommendation also includes support for non-profit and veterans organizations to operate slot machines. Peter Connell, a representative of Ocean Properties, supports the idea.

"I think we advanced the ball today and I'm thrilled with the outcome of the vote," Connell said.

So does Passamaquoddy Tribal Chief Joe Socobasin. His tribe has been trying to obtain state approval for slot machines and gambling attractions in Washington County for decades. Like Connell, he said he was tiring of what was perceived as efforts by gambling opponents to defer action.

'I just feel this whole commission has been established to delay what we've tried to accomplish for the last 20 years as I stated on record in the meeting," Socobasin said. "So I think to move things forward, it thought the best and most effective way to do that was to actually have this motion made this morning that carved out our piece that would give the recommendation that we move our bill forward in the next session."

And that's exactly what panelist Carroll Conley, the executive director of the Christian Civic League Of Maine, had hoped to avoid.

"I'm really disappointed that we have really changed the complexion of why we're here," Conley said. "It's supposed to be a very broad context about where do we go from here as opposed to taking up the legislative process."

Long-time casino opponent and public relations consultant Dennis Bailey said that as a member of the commission he knows there are future meetings planned for the group. But he said attendance hardly seems necessary.

"Our work is done, the icing's on the cake so to speak," Bailey said.

But the commission's Senate Chair John Patrick, who also opposed the successful motion by proponents, said there's still more work ahead for the panel.

"It's not over," Patrick said. 'We still have three more meetings to try and come to an agreement to bring forward to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on what the scope of gaming's going to be in Maine."

A drawn-out battle is likely to ensue next year when and if a bill hits the floors of the House and Senate. Gov. Paul LePage has not been supportive of expanded gaming in the past and has instead left those decisions up to Maine voters.

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