It seems like everyone else is getting in on the rapid gambling expansion in the northeastern United States, so why not Maine? That seemed to be the sentiment of many in the state, who saw plenty of other neighboring regions turn to gambling for additional revenues. But the Maine Senate has now put at least a temporary hold on such plans, rejecting a series of bills presented earlier this week related to the gaming industry.
That came after those bills had passed the House earlier in the month. In the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans argued that the state needed to slow down and work on a regulatory process to oversee gambling expansion before approving any new casinos.
“I stand here asking everyone in the room tonight to press the pause button,” said State Senator Garrett Mason (R-Lewiston). “All of our gaming…has been passed by citizen referendum, and that means the policy is very helter-skelter, to say the least.”
The bills that were rejected covered a wide range of interests, from Native American tribes to the horse racing industry.
There were proposals that would have given the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians power to operate casinos in Washington County and Aroostook County, respectively. Both of those casinos would still have needed to pass county-wide referendums in order to be approved, but were rejected by the Senate outright.
Passamaquoddy chief Clayton Cleaves said that his tribe will keep fighting for the right to operate a casino, and pointed to existing interests like the state lottery as opponents who have tried to stop his tribe from doing so.
“It’s not fair, in my opinion,” said Cleaves of the voting results. “We’re just trying to get jobs on our reservations, just like everyone else in this state.”
Despite the rejection, Republican Governor Paul LePage has said that he would sign the Passamaquoddy bill if he were given the opportunity. And it was clear that at least some Senators supported allowing Native American gambling expansion to go forward.
“They should have the opportunity to develop as they want to,” said State Senator Margaret Craven (D-Lewiston) in reference to the Maliseet bill. “We have overshadowed them long enough.”
Native Americans weren’t the only ones feeling left out in the cold at last week’s hearings. The Scarborough Downs racetrack argued that it needed a casino to stay competitive with ones that already exist in Oxford and Bangor. But a proposal that would have let the town vote on letting the horse racing operation expand to casino gaming was also defeated.
Veterans’ organizations were also disappointed, as a bill that would have allowed them to install slot machines in their clubs was rejected. Groups such as the American Legion say that bingo games – traditionally the form of gambling they have used to raise funds – are bringing in less money now that many members play the lottery or visit casinos.
Maine has had a complicated relationship with gambling expansion in recent years, with fierce battles being waged over casino plans and other measures. For instance, a 2010 ballot initiative to allow the operation of a casino in Oxford passed with just 50.4 percent of the vote, winning by less than 5,000 votes out of 565,000 cast.