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Tribal Hopes for Washington County Casino Dashed
03/27/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The best hope for a tribal casino in Washington County died today after the Maine Senate voted to reject the bill, along with several other gambling measures. Despite efforts to reach a compromise with the House, which strongly supported the plan, Senate support for the bill dissipated after some lawmakers reconsidered their positions and others wanted further study on the proposal. But as A.J. Higgins reports, tribal members and Washington County leaders say the issue has been studied for more than 20 years.

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One by one, the Maine Senate cast votes that dealt death blows to the quintet of gambling bills. They killed one that would have expanded high-stakes beano opportunities for Maine's Indian tribes. Then they rejected another that would have allowed Scarborough Downs to install slot machines. A bill that would allow slots at fraternal and veterans club went down for the count. The Senate dispatched a measure that would have allowed the Houlton Band of Maliseets to operate a tribal casino.

But the one that was the most difficult for Democratic Sen. John Tuttle to lose was LD 1520, a bill that would have allowed the Passamaquoddy Tribe to operate slot machines along with their high stakes beano games.

"There's a long history of many promises made by many administrations, and the promises were not kept," Tuttle said.

The Passamaquoddy bill was supported by the House with a 99-37 ought-to-pass vote. The Senate rejected the bill two weeks ago, and Tuttle, the Sanford co-chair of the legislative committee that originally reviewed the bill, remained hopeful that a compromise could be found.

But his attempt to refer the bill to a committee to take that up went nowhere. And potential support from lawmakers, such as Sen. Linda Valentino, of Saco, evaporated after LD 1111, the Scarborough Downs bill that she actively tried to salvage in the Senate, was killed.

"I fully intended to vote for this bill if LD 111 had gone through - but it didn't," Valentino said.

Others, such as Sen. Garrett Mason, of Lisbon Falls, rallied bipartisan opposition over concerns that lawmakers didn't have enough information about the proposal. Mason said that with casinos up and running in Bangor and Oxford, lawmakers needed a better handle on how many more casinos could be sustained in Maine - and if more were needed, where they should be located.

"I would urge the body to vote against the pending motion so that we can move forward with a truly comprehensive study on a plan for gaming for the future of the state of Maine," Mason said.

That's exactly what was supposed to happen last summer when a legislative commission consisting of nearly every competing interest in the state's gambling universe was appointed as stakeholders and charged with studying the future of gambling in Maine. Gambling proponents - that included tribal members - formed a bloc to essentially advocate for expanded gaming in a 10-8 vote.
Tuttle says the panel's mission was a disaster from the get-go.

"It was doomed to failure because of the make-up of the committee," Tuttle said. "Instead of having the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs do the work, we had every stakeholder come in who couldn't agree -- so we were doomed to failure. Hopefully we can do better in the future."

As she watched the Senate vote 20-15 against trying to forge a compromise with the House on the bill, Calais Rep. Joyce Maker said it was a sad day for Washington County.

"I know that we in Washington County would have worked together with the tribe, and it would have been a good facility," Maker said. "And I think this is a failure on the Senate's part, to be honest, because they're not looking out for the best interests of the state of Maine."

Now, it's back to square one for the tribe that left the State House empty handed, as they have so many times over the last two decades. But Passamaquoddy Chief Joseph Socobasin says there's always next year - although he remains baffled at what else lawmakers think they need to know about the tribe's proposal.

"We were told that 20 years ago: 'We need a study, we need to determine whether the market could bear a gaming facility,'" Socobasin says, "and here we are again, hearing that same thing."

A final effort by the tribe to put in an after-deadline bill that would shut down all casino gambling in Maine until a study could be performed on the future of gaming in the state was unanimously rejected by legislative leaders.


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