AUGUSTA — Five months after voters rejected proposals for three new gambling facilities in Maine, lawmakers hope to set guidelines for future development of casinos and racinos, including a competitive bidding process.
The Maine House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill to prohibit the state from accepting new applications for casinos or racinos after September. An 18-member commission would spend a year studying the effects of the state’s two operating casinos — one in Bangor and one that will open soon in Oxford — and report back to lawmakers in February 2014 with recommendations on establishment of competitive bidding for proposed gambling venues.
Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, has been advocating such an approach for years, saying it’s time for lawmakers to set guidelines, rather than just reacting to ballot initiatives. Since 2000, Mainers have rejected six citizens initiatives for expanded gambling, while approving two.
This is the first year since 2009 in which there hasn’t been a gambling issue on the statewide ballot, so lawmakers see an opportunity to update state rules.
The bill, L.D. 1897, passed 95-52 in the House on Wednesday, but needs more House and Senate votes.
Several opponents in the House said they are worried that the bill would hurt the state’s Indian tribes or the harness racing industry by creating more delays for future projects.
Rep. Madonna Soctomah, of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said L.D. 1897, which would require developers to pay $250,000 just to apply for a license and a minimum $5 million license fee, fails to consider a project’s size, location or demographics. A tribal racino in Washington County would be much smaller than a racino or casino in southern Maine, she said.
Soctomah her tribe has tried for 18 years to get voters to approve a racino in Washington County. In November, its latest proposal was part of Question 2, which also would have allowed a racino in Biddeford, to support Scarborough Downs.
The proposal was rejected, 55 percent to 45 percent.
For years, the tribe was told there would be no gambling in Maine until there were better rules, she said. Then, in 2003, voters approved a racino in Bangor — which expanded this year to a full casino with table games — and in 2010, voters approved the casino in Oxford.
Now, she noted, the tribe and all other potential developers would be barred from even applying for a license before 2014.
“It is very confusing to me, as a tribal person, to sit here and listen to what is going on,” she said.
Others criticized the makeup of the 18-member commission because it would include a representative of each of the two casinos in the state. They argued that it’s not reasonable to expect existing businesses to set up a system that will work well for future competitors.
“If we set up a commission and put Walmart and Target on the commission, and ask them to allow a Kohl’s to build, they would never do that,” said Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel.
Valentino and others said the bill would not affect the harness racing industry, which would continue to receive shares of slot machine revenue from Bangor and Oxford. From November 2007 until June 2011, the state’s Harness Racing Commission received more than $54 million for agricultural fairs and purse supplements, she said.
Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, said he opposes gambling but is supporting the bill because the state needs a fair process for considering future requests.
“We cannot abdicate our role any longer,” he said.
Susan Cover — 620-7015