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Maine Lawmakers Awash in Flood of Competing Gambling Bills
01/17/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Time is running out for a legislative policy committee charged with reviewing several bills that would expand gambling activities in Maine. Facing an end-of-the month deadline for making recommendations on the bills, the panel's chairs are asking legislative leaders for an extension. The issues are complex, and involve the competing interests of Maine's two casinos, off-track betting facilities, Indian tribes and veterans groups. As A.J. Higgins reports, lawmakers on the committee say finding middle ground among the many factions won't be easy.

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The wish lists of competing interests with gambling bills before the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee continue to evolve as the deadline for getting the bills out to the floor closes in.

Sen. John Patrick, a Rumford Democrat and committee member, says all three of Maine's Indian tribes want lawmakers to consider a variety of new gambling initiatives, including high-stakes beano dates, electronic beano, slot machines and a casino. The Scarborough Downs raceway would like to install slot machines, as would the state's veterans groups and fraternal organizations.

But Patrick says the committee is not even close to taking positions on these bills, and will be hard-pressed to meet a Jan. 24 deadline for taking votes on the legislation.

"Chairman Tuttle would like to talk to the presiding officers because this issue is so big and so broad, and we haven't got that policy where we can all agree to," Patrick says, "and that the best thing would be to give us permission to have a couple of more months to work on it, and get that policy done."

Two months is a long time in a short legislative session that's scheduled to adjourn in April, and the stakeholders in the state's gaming industry seem unwilling to compromise on long-held positions.

The tribes maintain that they have been intentionally left out of lucrative gaming opportunities by a state that seems to favor its two established casinos. The casinos are opposed to expanding commercial gambling ventures in any way. Veterans groups claim that they need slot machine revenues to assist their members and charitable fraternal groups counter that they, too, should be included in slot machine expansion.

Meanwhile, harness racing enthusiasts claim that their industry will decline if the track is not allowed to have slot machines. Patrick says sending the bills to the floor for debate without giving the committee time to reach consensus would be a disaster.

"Even if we voted them all out, the law, being of all sides coming into play, it's going to be a mess on the floor when you have that many people," Patrick says, "because those who have the ability and the money to change people's minds could win - maybe not necessarily the right ones should get it. And we don't even know who the right ones are yet, and that's a big problem."

Even if one of the bills makes it out of the Legislature and reaches the governor's desk, gambling expansion faces opposition from Gov. Paul LePage. LePage vetoed a bill in that would have provided slots for the veterans and service organizations, arguing that he believes those kinds of issues need to be decided by voters locally.

Patrick says back then LePage signaled that he might be interested in a slots bill that helped veterans. So Robert Drisko, of the Maine Elks Association, offered an amendment to a bill currently before the committee that would divert 35 percent of all net slot income raised under the legislation to veterans programs and veterans services.

Drisko says that without the machines, he doesn't know how much longer the Elks can continue to help Maine vets.

"If we were included in this - the non-profits - it would be a greater gain to the veterans then what we're giving them right now -- the 35 percent," Drisko told lawmakers. "Our motto of the Elks is, as long as there are veterans alive, they'll never be forgotten. And they're one of our main charities we take care of. And believe me, if we're not included in this, we're not going to be around to take care of them."

The committee chairs hope to meet with the Senate president and the speaker of the House next week to request more time to work the bills.


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