Maine Tribes Again Seek State Legislative Permission for Building Casinos

Posted on: March 15, 2021, 09:34h. 

Last updated on: March 16, 2021, 11:19h.

A proposal that could lead to tribal gaming operations in Maine will be the focus of a hearing Wednesday before the state legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. Earlier legislative attempts have failed.

Maine Tribes Gaming
Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians Chief Clarissa Sabattis shown here. The Maine tribe backs a proposal that could lead to tribal gaming in the state. (Image: Bangor Daily News)

Based on prior opposition, the bill appears to face an uphill battle. The proposal requires a major change in law.

It also faces likely opposition from current commercial gaming properties in Maine which do not want the competition. These include: the Hollywood Casino in Bangor and the Oxford Casino & Hotel in Oxford.

Opponents have argued the New England gaming market is already saturated, and tribal casinos would hurt prior economic development in Maine, where the commercial casinos are located.

Currently, because of state law, the tribes cannot take advantage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that lets the federal government review a request for a casino on tribal land.

Four Recognized Tribes in Maine Could Benefit

There are four federally recognized tribes in the state. Among them are the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

That tribe backs the new Maine bill that would let the tribe negotiate with the government for a gaming property in Aroostook County, the Bangor Daily News reported.

“In general, federal Indian law applies to all tribes in the United States, except for the four tribes in Maine,” Maliseet Tribal Chief Clarissa Sabattis said during an online meeting held on Friday, according to the Daily News.

“Because of this settlement act, any federal beneficial acts that are put into place by the federal government to help strengthen self-determination, economic development, and our governments in general don’t apply to us unless they’re explicitly stated on the floor [of Congress] by one of the Maine delegations, and that never happens,” Sabattis explained.

Also backing the concept of the bill is the Southern Aroostook Development Corporation (SADC). It is an economic development organization for the region.

SADC Executive Director Jon McLaughlin has not backed opening a casino in the region. But he says it is a question of equity for Maine tribes.

“I’m not pro or anti-casino. I don’t care one way or the other,” McLaughlin was quoted by the Daily News. “I just think the Maliseets and the other tribes in Maine should be given the same treatment as the rest of the Native Americans in this country.”

Prior Attempts at Tribal Casinos Fizzled

Earlier attempts in Maine to get tribal casinos basically failed. In 2018, the Maine Supreme Court declined to rule on whether the state’s tribes could operate casino gaming legally without the approval of the legislature.

In 2019, representatives from the state’s two existing commercial casinos, as well as the local business community, opposed the tribal gaming initiative. Also that year, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative to the legislature, Rena Newell, urged the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to open a casino. That initiative would have reduced friction between the tribes and state officials, Newell had argued.

Yet, John Williams, CEO and executive director of the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce, argued previously that a tribal casino located near Oxford “could significantly damage the local economy and reverse any sustaining economic growth.”

Besides the Passamaquoddy and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, other tribes in the state that could benefit from the legislation include the Penobscot Nation and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.