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Support Grows for Maine Gaming Study Bill
04/15/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine's three Indian tribes and Scarborough Downs failed to convince the Maine Legislature to approve their bids for expanding gambling this year. But they're not out of the game - yet. Support is mounting in both the House and the Senate for a bill authorizing a $150,000 study on the feasibility of additional gaming in the state and the impact it would have on Maine's two casinos. As A.J. Higgins reports, some lawmakers oppose the bill, claiming it is biased against veterans and fraternal organizations.

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The bill authorizing a new study on expanded gambling in Maine arrived in the state Senate after a 96-45 vote in the House last week. But Sen. Linda Valentino, a Saco Democrat, doesn't think it goes far enough. The bill calls for a feasibility study instead of an in-depth analysis. And that's something she says lawmakers need to reach definitive conclusions about where Maine should be heading in response to some groups' perennial quest for more gaming opportunities.

"I think that if we're spending $150,000 on a report, we need to do a full report on it, we don't need to just stop at the market analysis," Valentino said.

The subsequent 26-9 Senate vote in favor of the bill with Valentino's new amendment is the latest development in the lengthy history of the statewide debate on casinos in Maine that stretches back nearly 20 years.

LD 1856 acknowledges that process by referencing the Penobscot Nation, the Passamquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and Scarborough Downs as groups that should have preference in formulating a competitive bidding process for establishing new gaming facilities, in addition to the state's two casinos in Bangor and Oxford.

The tribes and the track saw their bills for gambling expansion die in the Senate after receiving approval in the Maine House. Sen. John Patrick, a longtime member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that spent much of the session reviewing the proposals, says the new study - the latest in a series of them - will be welcomed by lawmakers on his panel, who are constantly trying to balance the competing interests of those groups who claim they need gaming to survive.

"We will take the recommendations that are going to come forward and run with them, knowing that every entity, basically, that ever came to this hallowed body that wanted something done in the neighborhood of gaming will probably be finally resolved once and for all, once we have at least a baseline study," Patrick said.

Well, almost every entity. Sen. Garret Mason, a Lisbon Falls Republican, says the bill doesn't seem to recognize veterans groups and fraternal organizations that have also tried to get slot machines in their facilities. Mason says the omission of the groups and state preference for the race track and tribes reflect the bill's clear bias - and one that will be had to preserve.

"I think once you crack the door open for certain groups that other groups will start to come in, and in fairness would need consideration," Mason said. "For example, on a smaller scale, we had a bill that would have looked at creating slot parlors in all of the veterans' organizations in the state. Veterans are not included in this amendment."

Meanwhile, back in the House, nearly a third of the members initially found elements of the bill they weren't happy with. Rep. Diane Russell is a Portland Democrat.

"This study is a sweetheart deal for Las Vegas," Russell said. "if you want your gaming money to go to places like the Bellagio and MGM -- be my guest."

Russell had hoped to offer an amendment that - like Sen. Valentino's - would create a framework for a comprehensive study of gaming in Maine. She objected to the original plan because it placed an emphasis on considering existing gaming facilities.

Now that Valentino's amendment has been attached to the bill, there is some hope that it will attract even more support as it heads back to the House. And the bill will need it, since, as an emergency measure, it requires two-thirds votes in both chambers.


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