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Maine House Advances Flurry of Gambling Bills
03/06/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine's gambling industry came up big in the Maine House today, which gave initial approval to four different measures that would expand casino gaming all over the state. One would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino Downeast, and another would extend the same opportunity to the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in Aroostook County. A third gives the tribes more options for high stakes electronic beano games, and the fourth would permit slot machines at Scarborough Downs Harness Racing track in southern Maine. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Maine House Advances Flurry of Gambling Bills
Originally Aired: 3/6/2014 5:30 PM

Only a few years ago, the four gambling bills now before the Maine House wouldn't have had very good odds for passage. But Rep. Louis Luchini, co-chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, says attitudes have changed in the Legislature - largely because of what Luchini says has been the state's lack of any real policy strategy on gaming.

"These bills are a continuation of our state's fragmented and disorganized approach to gaming policy," Luchini said. "This approach has proved to be a very bad deal for the state."

Luchini had higher hopes a year ago when a special commission created by the Legislature set out to gather data on casino gambling in Maine and neighboring states and provinces, as a step toward developing a policy to guide any proposed expansion of gambling.

"Unfortunately this commission was a failure," Luchini said. "Rather than working together, casino advocates with interests in expanded gaming joined together to form a vote --a 10 to 9 to 1 vote, so they had the majority - with the recommendation essentially being the six bills that are before the legislative session this year."

Luchini's committee returned divided reports on four of the bills before the House, but the majority on the panel recommended against passage. The full House, however, went against that recommendation and allowed the bills to move forward in the legislative process.

Rep. Jim Campbell, a Newfield independent, spoke in favor of the measure that would allow slot machines at Scarborough Downs in southern Maine.

"Mr. Speaker, I'm speaking for the harness industry and the people that are involved in it," Campbell said. "It's part of our heritage in this state. It's part of our farmers that raise hay for these horses and grain, and the veterinarians. I mean, it's just an industry that if we let it slip it away, it's something we'll never have back."

But Rep. Ben Chipman, an independent from Portland, takes issue with the fact that the bill would not require that the proposal be put out to the voters in referendum.

"It's clear to me that consistently, voters locally and statewide have said 'no' to having a casino in this area of the state, and because the voters won't give approval, now it feels like in my mind, sort of a back-door approach to try to come to the Legislature and get approval from us, without requiring a statewide vote," Chipman said. "And I have a serious problem with that."

Representatives of Maine's tribes say it's time the state changed its stance on tribal gaming.

Rep. Madonna Soctomah, addressing colleagues in Passamaquoddy: "I come before you today as the representative of the Passmaquoddy people."

Twenty-one years ago, Soctomah argued in favor of a tribal casino in Washington County, only to see the proposal fail. She was back again before her fellow lawmakers arguing in favor of a new bill to accomplish the same purpose, but this time with the strength of an affirmative commission vote and an acknowlegement to part of the gaming consideration process by the last Legislature.

"I would humbly submit that after more than 20 years, it is finally time to approve a gaming facility in Washington County," Soctomah said. "The Legislature has already recognized the unique nature of this proposal, leaving a specific exemption in place for a tribal facility in Washington County, when the current moratorium was adopted in 2012."

The House passed both bills, along with another that would allow the Houlton Band of Maliseets to operate an Aroostook County casino and permit the tribes to run electronic high-stakes beano games. All of the bills face further votes in the House and Senate.


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